The treatment is already allowed on a voluntary basis in several EU countries, but only in Poland is it currently compulsory for rapists and child sex abusers.
Following a horrifying gang rape that shocked the country, Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini suggested a drastic, controversial solution: the introduction of forced chemical castration for rapists.
Seven men, all between the age of 18 and 22, have been accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in the city of Palermo, Sicily, in early July and filming the attack.
The case, which emerged last week when the trial against the young woman’s alleged abusers began, has taken over the public debate in Italy, with details of the attack - including the chats between the seven men - shared by local media sparking fury and disgust.
The argument around the case has seen some declaring that “not all men” should be blamed, while others have pointed at Italy’s grim track record of femicides and rampant violence against women to show that the problem is systemic.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right, populist party League and currently Italy’s minister of infrastructure and transport within Meloni’s coalition government, pushed himself into the public debate suggesting rapists should be chemically castrated as punishment for their actions.
“If you rape a woman or a child, you clearly have a problem. A prison sentence is not enough,” he said.
Six of the seven men involved in the rape of the woman in Palermo have already been arrested, while one - who was a minor at the time of the attack - was allowed to walk free after confessing. According to reports from the men’s families and their lawyers, the six are having a hard time in prison, where they’re being threatened by other inmates.
Salvini suggested bringing his proposal to introduce forced chemical castration for rapists to Parliament. Under his plan, the medical treatment could be imposed by a judge sentencing a child molester or rapist and would be automatic in case of repeated offending.
The idea has been criticised by many, including lawmaker Laura Boldrini of the left-centre party Partito Democratico (PD), who said that while the proposal might get Salvini some “political consensus,” what’s needed to fix the problem is a “cultural change” that should start from Italy’s schools.
Salvini is not the first to call for forced chemical castration for sex offenders - something that has already been embraced by countries like Pakistan (which had introduced it for repeat offenders but dropped it in 2021) and Indonesia (in the case of child molesters only), and which Russia is reportedly considering to introduce for paedophiles at the end of their prison sentence.
But does it work? Euronews asked an expert what’s the impact of chemical castration on sex offenders, and whether the procedure is even proper from a human rights perspective.
What is chemical castration - and does it work?
Castration can be obtained by either physically removing a man’s testicles - what’s known as surgical castration - or, as suggested by Salvini, by administering drugs through injections and pills that lower a man’s testosterone levels.
While this practice has previously been found to reduce libido and seminal fluid in men and has been linked to lower recidivism rates, experts say it has little to no impact on a person’s capacity to harm another - including assaulting them or raping them. It doesn’t address the role that power dynamics plays in these types of aggression, or try to solve the societal and psychological problems at their roots.
“People do not become sex offenders solely because of certain hormones or hormonal imbalance,” Dirk Baier, a criminologist at the ZHAW Institute of Delinquency at Zurich University in Switzerland, told Euronews.
“The development into a sexual offender takes place in a longer-term socialisation process. The personality that is formed through this process cannot then simply be changed through drug treatment,” he continued.
“According to these thoughts, the causes of sexual offences cannot be singularly attributed to an overproduction of the hormone testosterone. Drug treatment of sex offenders is therefore overestimated as an intervention measure; there is no scientific, experimentally validated evidence that this measure is effective.”
On top of this, chemical castration is only effective while under treatment, and can be reversed with time after discontinuing the procedure - meaning that the sexual urge that led an offender to abuse another person can resurface.
‘Inhuman and degrading’
There are also ethical and medical reasons to be wary of chemical castration: the treatment is known to have several collateral effects, including depression, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, hot flashes, infertility, and anaemia.
While the health of sex offenders might not gather much sympathy among the public, their well-being while under the custody of the state is a matter of justice that’s at the heart of the democratic system.
“Amnesty opposes forced chemical castration because it amounts to a violation of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Elisa de Pieri, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Euronews.
“It also poses issues in terms of applicability from the point of view of doctors who would be forced to perform something that is against the prohibition of torture. And in this sense, we obviously cannot support any legislative proposals in this direction,” she added.
“But the other aspect that we are keen to underline is that this is an alleged solution that only addresses the perpetrators, whereas we know from a lot of countries where we’ve monitored trends about rape, that rape comes from a much more complex cultural situation in society.”
In the end, there are no conclusive studies about the effectiveness of chemical castration in preventing the repetition of sex crimes. “For me, chemical castration doesn’t work because resocialising offenders requires more than just administering a drug,” said Baier.
“Such ‘technocratic views’ never worked in the past,” he added. “Resocialising offenders is just as lengthy and intensive a process as socialising them into becoming criminals. It requires specialised professionals - psychologists, social workers - as well as a broad social network and intensive work with the offender.”
The reason why some politicians keep calling for the introduction of forced chemical castration is because “it promises safety,” said Baier.
“It is a measure that enjoys high approval in certain population groups and contributes to a higher sense of security. The majority of the population thinks: If someone is castrated, he can no longer show sexual behaviour and therefore can no longer be sexually assaultive; but that is not correct as a general rule,” he continued.
“Chemical castration, like the repeated calls for harsher punishments in politics, is a narrative that promises security, because it marks a strong state that is able to act against crime and violence.”
What’s the situation in Europe?
A number of EU member states offer the use of chemical castration on a voluntary basis, as in most countries the treatment cannot be made compulsory for sex offenders.
In countries like Germany and the UK, chemical castration is available to dangerous or mentally ill sex offenders on a voluntary basis, with the treatment often linked to a reduction of their prison sentence.
Poland is the only EU country which has made possible, since 2009, to sentence sexual offenders to compulsory chemical castration.
In October 2011, Russia approved a law allowing court-requested forensic psychiatrists to prescribe chemical castration for convicted child sex offenders.
Moldova, which is not a member of the EU, voted in 2012 to make chemical castration compulsory for those convicted of violently abusing children under the age of 15 and rapists, though in the case of the latter that’s decided on a case by case basis.
In 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted to adopt a law allowing the compulsory chemical castration of convicted paedophiles older than 18 and not above the age of 65,
In Europe, the Czech Republic is the only country which allows for surgical castration - an option made available on a voluntary basis. Germany used to offer it until 2012, when the country abolished the procedure in response to criticism from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Punishment.
What’s an effective alternative?
Instead of chemical castration - a practice which has been condemned by human rights activists groups like Amnesty - Baier said we should be thinking of more effective methods to fight rape and sex offences.
“What is really helpful are learning programs and therapies that help sex offenders reflect on their behaviour, take responsibility, and develop and practice alternative strategies for action,” he said.
“This is a long, resource-intensive process and therefore less welcome among politicians. But we need to be very clear: There is no shortcut in treating sex offenders by giving them a pill; it takes a whole lot more to change people.”