At first it appeared to be just an overly emotional lapse in judgment on the part of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, but now it's official. The Polish government wants to pass a law that would force convicted pedophiles to be chemically castrated.
An incest case in the outskirts of the eastern Polish village of Grodzisk triggered the current debate. Police recently arrested a 45-year-old man who allegedly sexually abused his daughter for six years. His 21-year-old daughter claims she gave birth to two children sired by her father.
The news appalled Tusk. "I don't believe that such individuals, such creatures, can be called human," he said. "In this case one can't even argue on behalf of human rights." He wants to impose "chemical castration" as a punishment in Poland. In his words, castration would not come "at the request of the convict, but rather as a part of the verdict." The forced punishment would apply "mainly to pedophiles, particularly those who have no hope of reform."
Poland's Health and Justice Ministry is currently drafting the needed changes to the country's penal code, and Tusk hopes to have a forced castration bill prepared for parliament by October. "I want to introduce the toughest possible laws against criminals who rape children," Tusk said last week.
Christoph Joseph Ahlers views the Polish plan as the product of "pure populism." The clinical sexual psychologist is co-founder of the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project at the Institute for Sexual Medicine at Charité Hospital in Berlin, Germany and works there as a therapist consultant.
It's also still unclear who Prime Minister Tusk is actually targeting with his bill. One minute he speaks of "pedophiles" and of "criminals who rape children" and the next it's "convicts" who need forced castration.
Sexual psychologist Ahlers warns against convulting the terms. "Pedophilia isn't a criminal act, it's an illness in which sexual interest is directed at children," he says. "But that doesn't mean that every pedophile automatically abuses children."
Studies conducted in the United States have shown that only one-third of convicted criminals who have abused children are pedophiles. Two-thirds assaulted children for other reasons including illnesses like alcoholism. The left-leaning Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, which opposes the government proposal, has published such statistics repeatedly. The newspaper also reported that the 45-year-old arrested in eastern Poland hadn't even been assessed to be a pedophile.
Combination of Psychotherapy and Medications
It also remains unclear what, exactly, Tusk means by "chemical castration." According to sexual psychologist Ahlers, there are three possibilities for the medical treatment of sex offenders. Certain anti-depressants are one option, and so-called anti-androgens are another. Both are medications that reduce sexual desire.
But a class of drugs normally administered to prostate cancer patients can also be used to treat sex offenders -- and these are the only ones that technically qualify to be described as "chemical castration." They "almost completely eliminate sexual desire, and it remains depleted afterward," Ahlers says. The medications aren't officially approved for treating sex offenders, and they can only be administered at the express wish of the patient.
Great Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany already offer convicted child molesters the option of "chemical castration," but only on a voluntary basis and if administered by a qualified psychotherapist. In Germany, sex offenders have the legal right to psychotherapy.
Sexual psychologist Ahlers criticizes the prevalent belief that medicines alone can do the job. "Forcing these medications on patients would not be the correct professional treatment," says Ahlers. "Medicine alone doesn't automatically lead to an improvement in behavior control." He advises a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
In Germany, the conservative Christian Democrats have pushed numerous times for the introduction of "chemical castration." The debate became especially heated in the 1970s after the death of convicted sex offender Jürgen Bartsch, who abused and killed three children. To avoid lifelong detention in a psychiatric hospital, Bartsch opted for castration. In April 1976, operating room nurses administered ten times the normal amount of anesthesia, and Barsch died shortly after the operation.
Ahlers warns against expectations for castration that are too high. "Even castrated men can have relapses," he says. It all depends on whether the medication is provided together with "qualified psychotherapy."
EU Has No Authority to Prevent Castration
In Poland, the debate over the issue continues to rage. Human rights activists and legal experts point out that the Polish constitution prohibits corporal punishment. They also argue that forced drug therapy against the will of the patient would violate Polish and international law.
And even though Poland is a member of the European Union, there is little that can be done in Brussels to prevent the country from adopting the penal measure. "It doesn't have the authority because criminal law is an issue for the member states," says Klaus Hänsch, a German member of the European Parliament and former president of that body representing the center-left Social Democrats. The death penalty is the only punishment expressly prohibited by the EU, he says. At most, the EU could condemn the plan on moral and ethical grounds.
"I don't believe that this forced castration would be an appropriate punishment compatible with modern criminal law,"says the EU legal expert.
Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament with the conservative Christian Democrats also views the planned law critically, describing it as "an unsuitable instrument." Both politicians said they believed it would be possible for Polish citizens to challenge the law at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
84 Percent of Poles Support Tusk's Plan
But there's a good chance Tusk will succeed in pushing the initiative through. Conservative President Lech Kaczynski backs the center-right prime minister on the issue. And that's not support Tusk can always count on -- after all, he ousted Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw as prime minister during elections in October 2007. Parties of almost every political leaning in the country are also calling for sharper punishment for sex offenders who abuse children.
A conservative attitude still prevails in Polish society today. A recent poll taken for the conservative daily Dziennik showed84 percent of Poles supporting Tusk's plan. It's backing the prime minister and his administration haven't always been able to take for granted. Only 38 percent of Poles thought the government was doing a good job after Tusk's first 300 days in office, surveys showed.
But support for Tusk and his government has since grown. According to a poll taken for the Warsaw dailyGazeta Wyborcza, if Poles went to the polls this weekend, Tusk's Civic Platform (PO) would garner 58 percent of the vote, an increase of 10 points since the last poll was taken two weeks ago.