France introduces chemical castration for sex offenders

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France launched a pilot plan yesterday to offer rapists and paedophiles chemical treatment to inhibit their sex drive.

The move, announced by justice minister Dominique Perben, aims to reduce the population of French prisons where 8,200 men - or 22 per cent of male inmates - are convicted sex offenders. Of those, three out of four have been jailed for crimes of paedophilia.

Mr Perben said a two-year trial would be launched in January under which 48 repeat offenders will be offered counselling and treatment using two drugs that inhibit the development of male sex hormones.

The minister said: "With the drugs, these people will be ... able to control urges which they often describe as impossible to resist." But he stressed that France was not envisaging offering full-scale chemical castration. "The drugs that are going to be used have no irreversible effects," he claimed.

However, specialists warned that not enough is known about the possible side-effects of the so-called anti-androgen drugs - leuproreline, which is injected once a month, and cyproterone, which is taken in tablet form - nor whether the treatments are reversible. Cyproterone is used to treat prostate cancer and severe forms of male hair growth. Leuproreline is a breast cancer drug.

French probation officers and social workers warned yesterday that follow-up and counselling services are not adequate for the widescale intro- duction of the drugs. Criminal psychiatrist Louis Roure welcomed the two-year pilot but said: "Some medical teams in France prescribe these drugs - which are not available to general practitioners - but these are individual initiatives.

"We do not yet have the framework for the widescale use of the drugs.''

The men in the trial - who are described as all being volunteers - will be released early from jail on condition that they agree to the treatment by Professor Serge Stoléru at Inserm, the national health research institute. Mr Perben said he expects positive results and would like to take action to put the drugs on the market and offer them to all sex offenders. He ruled out making the treatment obligatory or even considering voluntary chemical castration which is available in Sweden and Germany.

Mr Perben's move has been widely welcomed by child-protection lobbyists and French MPs. However, the left-leaning body representing judges, the Syndicat de la Magistrature, called it "a move by a justice minister who is obsessed with hardline anti-crime measures". Several right-wing MPs suggested the pilot plan did not go far enough. "It's not by using pills that we are going to prevent serial killers from re-offending," said Alain Ferry.

The known effects of the two drugs are to reduce erections. To a lesser extent, they reduce the mental desire for sex, or libido. In the 1990s, French sex offenders who had served their sentences were offered anti-depressants and hormones such as oestrogen but the results were unsatisfactory, according to doctors. Oestrogen, in particular, has now been ruled out for use in men because it causes irreversible feminisation.

Sweden, Denmark and Canada already offer drugs to repeat sex offenders but on a voluntary basis after they have left prison and in combination with psychotherapy. The effects of the two drugs used on 48 Danish sex offenders since 1989 - Androcur, a female sexual hormone, and Enanton, a prostate cancer drug - are said to wear off between three and six months after the end of treatment. Danish doctors believe none of the men have so far reoffended.

A Bordeaux probation officer, Emmanuelle Perreux, said a small number of released French sex offenders had already been offered drugs to reduce their sex drive. "I have 50 sex offenders on my books and one of them is taking a chemical treatment. But these drugs should only be used on individuals who admit what they have done. They do not work on the most dangerous sex offenders - the perverts who get pleasure out of inflicting suffering."