Tennessee’s Chemical Castration Bill Shows Local Republicans Have One Thing on Their Minds

Tennessee’s Chemical Castration Bill Shows Local Republicans Have One Thing on Their Minds

Tennessee’s Chemical Castration Bill Shows Local Republicans Have One Thing on Their Minds

“It’s a return, if you will, to the dark ages,” one civil rights advocate says.


Early this month, Representative Bruce Griffey of western Tennessee’s 75th district made public his latest effort to control and degrade the state’s most vulnerable: a bill that would require any person convicted of sex offenses against a minor under the age of 13 to undergo “chemical castration” upon becoming eligible for parole.

Convicts will be responsible for the cost of the intervention, and halting it would be considered a parole violation, sending the parolee immediately back to jail to serve the rest of their sentence. Proponents justify the invasive law on the pretext of protecting the children of Tennessee from potential predators.

Chemical castration reduces the body’s sexual urges with drugs or hormones. Unlike surgical castration, it is reversible, but it isn’t harmless. Critics claim the practice violates fundamental civil liberties, like the right to one’s own thoughts and to bodily autonomy, and note that the commission of a crime, no matter how serious, does not strip a person of their essential rights.

If you have a penis, imagine a life without the possibility of erection or orgasm. No more yearning, no more physical intimacy, no more pleasant daydreams. For someone who’s supposed to have paid their debt to society, this is unnecessarily cruel.

The “treatment” is not without considerable health risk, either. Long-term use carries the potential for osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, impaired glucose metabolism, and more everyday side effects like gynecomastia, hot flashes, and depression. Though some small-scale studies have found modest decreases in recidivism with chemical castration, no randomized control trials have been conducted.

It’s not the first time a Republican legislator has displayed excessive interest in the genitals of his constituents. Griffey is also currently cosponsoring a bill that would require Tennessee students to play sports on teams appropriate to the gender noted on their birth certificates, a transparent attempt to curtail the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming kids. Schools that refuse to follow the rule would lose public funding.

And in June of last year, Alabama enacted a law nearly identical to Griffey’s chemical castration proposal, joining Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Montana, Wisconsin, and California, which passed the first such measure in the United States in 1996, under Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

Following Indonesia’s push in 2016 to introduce the punishment for sex offenders, Amnesty International released a statement about the practice noting that “forced chemical castration is a violation of the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law.” The ACLU has come out against the practice as well.

In the United States, such statutes may face legal challenges, largely on the basis of their dubious constitutionality. A 2003 analysis in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law notes several grounds for potential disputes: under the First Amendment, for attempting to control the content of a person’s mind, or fantasies; the Eighth Amendment, as cruel and unusual punishment; and the 14th Amendment, for failing to honor the guarantee of due process, and infringing on fundamental liberties, such as the liberty to have children. The measures may also violate the equal protection clause, since, although their language is gender-nonspecific, the actual effects of the drugs disproportionately affect men.

“It is a return, if you will, to the dark ages,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, of that state’s law.

Chemical castration has a brutal, bigoted, and ableist history. Before the technology existed for a chemical intervention, eugenics movements embraced castration and sterilization as ways to prevent undesirable populations—for instance, criminals and mentally ill people—from procreating, in 19th century America. Beginning in the 1940s, diethylstilbestrol or DES was used to lower testosterone levels in men with “pathological” sexual behavior. In 1966, Dr. John Money, famous for his wrongheaded (and in some cases, fatal) views on gender assignment at birth, prescribed a man struggling with pedophilic fantasies medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), the active ingredient in the hormonal contraceptive Depo-Provera, and the drug used in most states that have chemical castration laws for sex offenders. (MPA is not approved for this usage by the FDA, and was abandoned in Europe because of its severe side effects.)

Hormone treatment, used as a “corrective” punishment in place of prison for the crime of homosexuality, has been widely blamed for the suicide of renowned computer scientist Alan Turing (Turing was forced to take DES). In 2012, a doctor in Sydney was banned from practicing medicine after prescribing chemical castration as a “cure” for his 18-year-old patient’s homosexuality.

Despite its checkered past, some choose hormone therapy of their own volition to curb troubling sexual thoughts or behaviors, and reduce sexual urges. The Cut published an interview in 2015 with a 62-year-old man voluntarily taking Lupron (generic leuprolide), which dramatically decreases the pituitary gland’s production of testosterone; the man says that it, combined with regular psychotherapy, ended his destructive pattern of compulsive sex with prostitutes and saved his marriage.

Another ethical thorn jabs the doctor assigned to give the hormone-limiting drugs. Can a physician administering this kind of treatment really obtain informed consent? Isn’t the measure inherently coercive, if it’s a condition of parole? In medical ethics, a vulnerable population cannot consent to a procedure not explicitly performed for their benefit—and it would require a leap of logic to claim involuntary hormone treatment is strictly beneficial. Incarcerated persons are a uniquely vulnerable group, with little to no power of self-determination, whose bodily integrity Tennessee already has an abysmal track record of respecting. Subjecting them to this humiliating practice as a condition of reentry into society further deprives them of their humanity.

That kind of cowboy approach to public safety is par for the course for Representative Griffey, who has already made a name for himself in his brief yet storied tenure in the Tennessee legislature. He has pushed for other demeaning aspects of the national Republican agenda as well. In March of last year, he filed a bill that would restrict welfare benefits in Tennessee only to those who could prove United States citizenship, including, per the bill’s abstract, “each applicant 18 years of age or older, who applies for prenatal care administered by the department of health and the special supplemental food program for women, infants and children administered by the department of health.” The bill ultimately failed, evidently considered too heartless even for Republicans.

Griffey’s ire isn’t confined to poor, pregnant women. He also introduced a bill this month, along with state Senator Joey Hensley, that would subject resettlement of refugees in Tennessee to the approval of both local governments and the state legislature, a two-step process clearly designed to hinder resettlement—this after Governor Bill Lee recently agreed to statewide resettlements for the second year in a row.

In the realm of personal ethics, Griffey is in no position to play the moral police. In September of last year, he was revealed to have engaged in backdoor dealings that led to the resignation of a Carroll County attorney, Jennifer King, so that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee could appoint Griffey’s wife, Rebecca, in her place (which he declined to do). It turned out that one of the reasons Rebecca Griffey was not selected may have been her claim to the interview panel that a tax lien had not been placed on the Griffeys’ home, despite documents provided by the IRS that showed the couple had failed to pay $240,060 in 2015 and $23,030 in 2016.

When contacted, Representative Griffey’s office declined to comment for this story.

Even among Tennessee Republicans, Griffey is certainly a figure in state government to keep tabs on—and to thwart at every turn, at least for anyone who wants to keep politicians’ roving hands out of their metaphorical pants.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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