Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Are Bans on "Gay Conversion Therapy" Based on Reason and Evidence?

A legislative panel held a hearing this morning to consider the issue of a ban on "gay conversion therapy." Here are a few questions lawmakers should ask before supporting a counseling censorship bill that would put legislators with no medical expertise in the position of judging appropriate medical treatments:

First, supporters of the counseling censorship ban cite several specific practices that are part of some kinds of "conversion therapy" ("a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful stimuli..." as one supporter of the ban has put it) that they consider to be harmful:

  • Is it these particular practices that are the problem?
  • What about conversion therapy that does not engage in these practices?
  • Why not ban these particular practices? Why ban all conversion therapies?
  • If these practices are what is the problem, then why not ban these particular practices in any kind of therapy?
  • Why does this bill ban all conversion therapy, not just conversion therapy that engages in these particular practices?

Second, according to information from supporters, a lot of people have undergone conversion therapy. That would indicate that there must be a lot of psychologists who offer it:

  • Are there really that many bad practitioners in the psychological profession. If so, is there some larger problem in the profession?
  • Have these psychologists had a voice in the doings of the associations of which they are a part that now publicly oppose this kind of therapy?
  • Are they members of these associations at all? How representative are the associations who oppose this kind of therapy of the larger body of psychologists?

Third, if conversion therapy is to be banned because of "health risks for LGBTQ young people such as depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness, and even suicidal behavior," wouldn't that implicate some of the LGBTQ orientations this bill is intended to privilege? These very pathologies seem to be overrepresented in many LGBTQ populations--apart from any conversion therapy. One report, for example, asserts that as many as 40 percent of transgender adults report having attempted suicide. Doesn't the logic of this argument call non-traditional sexual orientations themselves into question?

Fourth, let's assume that harm to some individuals (not all, there are a number of people who have benefited from some form of conversion therapy) has in fact occurred.

  • Is that sufficient reason for banning a practice?
  • Are supporters of the counseling censorship bill in favor of banning any practices which sometimes result in harm to the patient?
  • There are many medical procedures that are considered risky because of high rates of harm to the patient, and there are many types of patients who are particularly at risk for certain surgeries (such as the elderly). If resulting harm is the test, should all these procedures be banned?

Finally, if there were no demonstrated harm from conversion therapy, would supporters still oppose it?

The arguments for the counseling censorship bill is fraught with ubiquitous appeals to authority (a large array of professional associations oppose it), and the fact that public opinion polls are against it. Since when are appeals to opinion polls considered an appropriate way of determining the integrity of medical procedures? In fact, the very rhetoric of those who pretend to be acting on behalf of science--which includes not only ad populum appeals and appeals to authority, but also emotional appeals--belies a very unscientific attitude toward the issue.

One also wonders whether the people who now oppose gay conversion therapy would automatically change their minds if professional associations changed their opinions and supported it instead (as they once did before they were politically pressured to change their positions). In other words, if these associations changed their minds tomorrow, would these people drop their support for these counseling censorship bills? If we index the integrity of medical or psychological procedures to such things, then we would have to say that there was nothing wrong with conversion therapy when it had professional and public support.

It is tempting to conclude that the reason for censoring psychological counselors has little to do with these arguments and more to do with the ideologies the opponents seem to represent. But ideology should not be the determining factor for deciding the integrity of medical or psychological practices.