The medicalisation of crime

20170319150000, Gracia Lee
Medicine and biology cannot account for everything – there is a need for a multifactorial approach to crime causation.
It is not uncommon to see in the newspapers that people on trial are being subjected to medical testing to determine if their crime could be attributed to medical conditions such as mental illnesses. However, it was not always so; this phenomenon only took root in the 19th Century.

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909)

Lombroso was an Italian physician, surgeon and medical professor who abandoned the classical views of crime as a natural consequence of the asocial and selfish nature of humans. Instead, being in the medical profession, he searched for answers within the human body. Through autopsies and examinations, he concluded that criminals were genetic throwbacks and atavistic beings who were not yet fully evolved. He compared these criminals to apes, pointing to their physical anomalies such as cranial deformities, excessive hair and long arms as signs of criminality.

While Lombroso’s views have generally been dismissed as absurd and have been disproved today, there are, undeniably, Lombrosian undercurrents in the modern scientific perception of crime. One of these perceptions is the pathologising of crime – that the source of crime is to be found within the individual and that a possible biological dysfunction can be associated with it.

Why do people rape?

The pathologising discourse in criminology is evident in how modern society assesses the causes of crimes like rape. There are numerous neurobiological explanations, such as cognitive impairments leading to deficits in empathy and the inability to control impulsive and aggressive urges.

Mental disorders are also used to account for rape, to the point where specific names have been exclusively assigned to them, such as paraphilia and sexual sadism. Sometimes, rape is also attributed to other mental conditions like psychosis and mania. Such an attribution is part of the movement coined by Foucault, known as the ‘psychiatrisation of crime’.

Adding on to the biological perspective of crime, there was even a study in India, conducted after a period of high rates of rape, which found that certain fast foods, especially those that are spicy, led to hormonal imbalance and a subsequent urge to indulge in sexual activities like rape.

The implications of medicalising and pathologising crime

Since the source of crime is now to be found in the individual, solutions to resolve crime and reduce criminal tendencies are directed at the individual. For example, criminals deemed mentally unsound are given treatment and counselling at prisons and mental hospitals.

This also deflects attention away from social problems in general. Like how poverty may drive theft, rape might also be a result of social problems. For example, rape could also be seen as a hypermasculine exertion and a consequence of deeply entrenched patriarchal notions.

A multifactorial approach

Medicine and biology cannot account for everything – there is a need for a multifactorial approach to crime causation. Similarly, this can be extended to everyday phenomena or even one’s health.

Sometimes, sicknesses cannot be entirely accounted for by medical reasons only. In looking beyond the individual, into their social environment, perhaps you would find certain social factors like loneliness and a lack of support that reduce the efficacy of treatment or contribute to the deterioration of your patients’ health. MIMS

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