Why Banning Conversion Therapy May Do More Harm Than Good

Therapies promising to "cure" homosexuality are potentially harmful, but so are laws to ban them

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On September 29, Jerry Brown signed into law a bill banning therapy that purportedly “cures” gays for minors in the state of California. Brown had previously Tweeted that these practices, known as conversion therapy, “have no basis in science of medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” Almost immediately after being signed into law, a Christian legal group called the Pacific Justice Institute sued the state, saying that the ban was a violation of free speech and private relationships between youth, families and their therapists. Is the law a helpful effort to protect minors or a nanny-state intrusion into a private and intimate issue?

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Both, possibly. First, it should be clearly stated that the empirical research supporting the efficacy of this form of therapy is weak, at best.  A 2009 task force report   by the American Psychological Association concluded that efforts to therapeutically change sexual orientation do not work, and carry significant risk of harm.  Consenting homosexual behavior is no more harmful than consenting heterosexual behavior, but instilling or reinforcing in patients the view that their sexual orientation is wrong can do psychological damage. Outside of religious conservatives, few defenders of conversion therapy can be found.

Whether government banning of such procedures is the most appropriate response is worth debating, however. There are a number of therapies out there which have been empirically demonstrated to range from useless to outright harmful. Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, discussed this in a 2007 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Among the therapies he looked at were questionable ones such as facilitated communication, “rebirthing” therapies, and “recovered memory” therapy. But they also included relatively popular approaches such as “Scare Straight” for kids who are at risk for delinquency, boot camps kids who are anti-social, and DARE anti-drug programs. If we are going to start down the road of banning therapies, should we not ban these all, if the research evidence continues to bear out Dr. Lilienfeld’s concerns?  Why do we ban gay conversion therapy but leave DARE programs intact?

Perhaps it’s because gay conversion therapy seems so blatantly hateful, whereas at least DARE and these other approaches are well-meaning if misguided. But the real problem here is that the field of psychology is still too fluid and unreliable to form the basis of policy decisions and laws. The empirical science tends to be “squishy” because rampant methodological flexibility issues make it possible to publish anything as if true.

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Banning a particular treatment also creates a slippery slope, which is perhaps why its so rare. In one notable exception, rebirthing therapy has been outlawed in Colorado and North Carolina following several fatal accidents during treatment. But even the deplorable lobotomy has never been legally banned in the United States. Then there are some therapies, such as electro-convulsive shock therapy, which develop bad reputations but then have ultimately been proven useful and effective in some situations.

Granted, gay conversion therapy seems to be a lemon unlikely to be redeeemed. But banning it may simply drive it underground, where it won’t even be subject to state regulation or limited to therapists who are licensed. With gay conversion therapy, the treatment may be worse than the ‘problem,’ but the same could be said for government efforts to intervene.