Chemical castration for convicted rapists isn't an easy answer

March 25, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Here's the thesis, and it's pretty basic: The one sure remedy for rape is castration.

Did that get your attention?

It's getting plenty of attention in Florida, where a state legislator named Robert Wexler has a bill on the senate floor that would permit judges to chemically castrate a rapist following a second offense.

This is the perfect bill for these get-tough-on-crime -- or at least sound-tough-on-crime -- times.

You don't get much tougher than castration. Ask any guy.

They're calling it the Lorena Bobbitt bill, and you can understand its appeal. It has a very high vengeance quotient. And, as a bonus, it would seem to prevent any recurrence of the crime.

Not surprisingly, the bill is striking a chord with a lot of people. The day of coddling criminals, if it ever existed, is long past. Castration definitely does not fall under the category of coddling.

Rape is, of course, a particularly ugly crime. And what do we do with rapists? In Florida, a rapist typically serves six years. The victim doesn't get off so easily.

And we know there is much literature to suggest rapists have an unusually high recidivism rate, meaning released rapists often rape again. We let them out anyway.

So, chemical castration is offered as a solution.

Actually, it isn't really castration at all. The rapist is given a drug compound called Depo-Provera, which reduces the production of testosterone, thus diminishing the sex drive.

It's reversible. The bill demands that rapists be re-injected every three months during their prison term and thereafter until the time they were no longer seen as dangerous to society.

Still, I guess that's tough enough. Some critics are saying it's too tough. Some liken it to lopping off the hands of thieves.

But after someone commits two rapes, isn't society obligated to do whatever it can to protect itself from the monster?

That's an easy question. Here's a harder one: Is chemical castration the answer or just a tough-sounding response to a difficult problem?

The National Organization for Women, a group fairly militant on rape, opposes the bill. That's because NOW says rape is a crime of violence, not of sex, and that castration isn't the answer.

Dr. Fred Berlin, an expert on Depo-Provera who runs a clinic in Baltimore that treats rapists and pedophiles, among others, also opposes the bill, but for different reasons.

He says he rejects the idea of using medicine as punishment. But, perhaps more important, he doesn't believe Depo-Provera, which he uses in his practice, would deliver as promised.

"What concerns me about the Florida bill is the broad brush it uses," Berlin says. "There is a subgroup of people who are predisposed to certain behaviors for whom the medicine can be helpful. But for someone lacking a conscience or ordinary social concerns, no medicine can help."

Berlin says some rapists need coercion in order to be aroused. Others are sociopaths for whom rape is just one expression of violence available to them. It's unreasonable to expect all rapists to respond to the same treatment.

If we release rapists from jail thinking Depo-Provera will protect us, Berlin says, we are just fooling ourselves. There's no magic potion.

"The argument you hear in Florida is that we can't afford to lock these people up forever," Berlin says. "But we don't have the data to support the thesis that Depo-Provera would make us safer."

He argues: "If we knew we could be made safer by diminishing the sex drives of rapists, why not mandate it for first-time rapists? Why wait for a second assault?"

Berlin has been controversial in his belief that sexual offenders require treatment as well as punishment. In his practice, he treats convicted rapists and pedophiles, often using Depo-Provera. He claims a high success rate. Obviously, he approves of the treatment. What he opposes is the idea that it can be used as a vaccine to prevent rape.

So what do we do with rapists?

It's a hard question. These are all harder questions than we want to admit. One report says 43 percent of convicted rapists rape again. This is intolerable. It's why something as extreme as forced chemical castration is so appealing to some.

Maybe chemicals don't work by themselves. Jail obviously doesn't work. Maybe we need different solutions. But I think we can agree on the bottom line -- that until we figure out what to do with rapists, we keep them off the street.

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