A doctor makes an incision in a man's scrotal sac and, deftly wielding his scalpel, quickly removes both testicles. In the Czech Republic, that simple operation is the punishment for male sex offenders. But to the Council of Europe, the region's leading human-rights body, the procedure is "invasive, irreversible and mutilating." In a report issued last week, the council called the punishment "degrading" and demanded it be scrapped immediately.
Over the past decade, at least 94 prisoners have undergone the treatment in the Czech Republic, the only country in Europe that continues to surgically castrate sex offenders. The Czech government insists the procedure is a medical issue, one that permanently reduces testosterone levels to lower an offender's sexual urges. And officials say it is performed only at the request of the prisoners themselves. (See pictures of prison life.)
But the Council of Europe whose Committee for the Prevention of Torture investigated the Czech policy says it can be described as medical intervention only if the genitalia are diseased or damaged. "Surgical castration is no longer a generally accepted medical intervention in the treatment of sex offenders," the council's report said.
The Czech law has a long pedigree. Castration as punishment dates back thousands of years and crosses all world cultures. The methods have evolved from brutal knife swipes that removed entire genitalia to chemical treatments. Drugs that lower the testosterone, dampen the sex drive and inhibit erections are now available in Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and many American states, but prisoners must volunteer for the treatment before the drugs are administered.
Despite many studies of the effectiveness of castration both surgical and chemical the results are inconclusive. Some surveys suggest castration can dramatically reduce recidivism. One 1989 survey in Germany of 104 voluntary castrates showed a 75% drop in sexual interest, libido, erection and ejaculation. But measuring such changes is notoriously difficult and often depends on the subjective self-reports of sex offenders. A 1989 Psychological Bulletin study concluded that "the recidivism rate for treated offenders is not lower than that for untreated offenders; if anything, it tends to be higher." Many other studies emphasize the mental nature of deviant sexual interests, which cannot be cured through surgery. Fred S. Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, argues that even if most sexual offenders cannot be cured, many can be successfully treated through counseling. "It depends on the availability of adequate community-based resources, in some instances following a period of residential care," he says.
In its report, the Council of Europe also criticized the fact that the Czechs often use the punishment on first-time, nonviolent offenders, like exhibitionists. Another issue: the Czech penal system effectively forces many prisoners into accepting the procedure out of fear they will be jailed for life if they do not, according to the council. "Given the context in which the intervention is offered, it is questionable whether consent to the option of surgical castration will always be truly free and informed," it said. Investigators found five cases of it being performed on legally incapacitated offenders who were not capable of making an informed decision. They found only two convicts who had spontaneously volunteered for castration.
Civil rights groups say any kind of castration, even if reversible, could take society down the road to eugenics. A 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said that involuntary surgical castration constituted cruel and unusual punishment. David Fathi, head of Human Rights Watch's U.S. program in Washington, says the Czech methods not only defy medical convention but also are an affront to civil liberties. "Any irreversible punishment is a fundamental violation of human rights. And any kind of mutilation is barbaric," he says.
Fathi says rehabilitation of sex offenders is far more effective than castration. "There are no easy answers," he says. "But castration does not work any more than cutting off hands treats kleptomania."