Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why banning anti-gay therapy is problematic

Time Magazine   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?

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?

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