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Anger Over Sex Crimes Brings Calls for Castration

March 10, 1992

Undated (AP) _ Men wince at the word. It evokes images of eunuchs and castrato choirs, Nazi Germany and Sigmund Freud. But castration has been hauled into public discourse by a judge who ordered it performed on a child molester.

District Judge Mike McSpadden of Houston saw it as a solution to one of society’s most vexing problems, sexual assault. While some people agreed, others saw it as barbaric, freakish, cruel and unnecessary.

It’s an old debate, one that goes back to at least the 1850s in this country. By the middle of this century, it was mostly discredited, but there has been a revival of discussion - and now, apparently, action - in the past couple of years.

McSpadden, in his decision last week, did not impose the surgery on an unwilling subject. Steven Allen Butler said he preferred to have his testicles removed than face trial for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The crime carried the possibility of a life sentence. Instead, Butler, who was already on probation for indecency with a child, will be placed on a form of probation for 10 years.

In agreeing to the plea bargain, McSpadden apparently was counting on the procedure to deflate Butler’s sex drive and aggressiveness. That assumption underlies most of the attempts to make castration a part of the judicial process.

The testicles produce much, though not all, of a man’s testosterone, the main hormone fueling the male sex drive. Without them, a man can still have an erection and still have sex. But his desire for it may decline dramatically.

He does not, as folklore would have it, suddenly gain a soprano voice. That is the result of castrating boys who have not yet reached puberty, a practice that produced the famous castrato singers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

According to researcher Philip Reilly, executive director of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation in Massachusetts, castration was widely discussed in this country in the 1850s. It was imposed on a convicted rapist in Belton, Texas, in 1864.

That was the only time it has been legally imposed on a rapist without his consent, Reilly said, although forced sterilization was common for retarded people - male and female - in the early part of this century.

″The Houston case is not the first time in modern times that a judge has suggested or a defendant has volunteered to have castration,″ he added. But he said such voluntary arrangements have been extremely rare.

There was a flurry of pro-castration activity two years ago, when legislators in three states introduced bills to allow sex offenders to be castrated in exchange for reductions in their prison sentences.

The bills never went anywhere. One passed the Washington state Senate but was defeated in the House. Bills in Alabama and Indiana didn’t get that far.

Still, they pointed to rising frustration over sex crimes and the belief of many people that sex criminals cannot be rehabilitated by conventional means.

″We’re not doing anything in any kind of therapy or incarceration that comes anywhere near castration,″ Washington state Sen. Ellen Craswell, the sponsor of her state’s castration bill, said at the time.

Also in 1990, a judge in Westmoreland County, Pa., made castration a part of his sentence against a man convicted of sexually abusing a girl. Judge Gilfert M. Mihalich sentenced Samuel Elbert Powell to 30 to 60 years in prison but also recommended he be castrated if he ever won a furlough or early release.

Mihalich said he received hundreds of letters applauding the sentence, which is under appeal. He said Monday he still believes he did the right thing and that the sentence does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

″In fact,″ he said ″the cruel or unusual or barbarous treatment was forced upon the victim.″

In one celebrated case several years ago in Michigan, an Upjohn Co. heir who raped his stepdaughter was ordered to undergo ″chemical castration″ by taking the drug Depo-Provera, an Upjohn product that stops the body’s production of testosterone. The sentence was overturned on appeal.

Some prominent sex researchers say Depo-Provera can be effective if used selectively and combined with counseling or other treatment. They take a dim view of surgical castration.

Dr. John Money, a professor emeritus at the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said there is no assurance castration would have any effect on a sex deviant except to make him infertile.

By contrast, Depo-Provera can have a tranquilizing effect on that part of the brain that stimulates aggressive sexual behavior.

″Surgical castration doesn’t do anything to tranquilize the erotic centers in the brain,″ Money said.

Critics of Depo-Provera say it is impractical, since it requires continual treatments over a lifetime. Defendants would require constant monitoring.

On the other hand, Money and others point out, the effects of surgical castration can be overcome by testosterone injections.

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