A discredited therapy that purports to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals was repudiated again late last month. This time, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld a California law preventing licensed therapists from counseling minors to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight.
So-called “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” began at a time when professionals in medicine and psychology considered homosexuality an illness that was amenable to treatment. That ended in 1973, when homosexuality was removed from the psychiatry profession’s diagnostic manual of mental disorders. Soon all major mental health associations followed suit. A small number of therapists, however, continue to practice and advocate conversion therapy today.
The California law, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2012, says those practicing conversion therapy on a patient under 18 would be engaging in “unprofessional conduct” subject to discipline by state licensing authorities.
The State Legislature relied heavily on professional reviews of the scientific literature, which concluded that the effectiveness of conversion therapy had not been demonstrated and cited anecdotal reports of its harm, including depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, and substance abuse.
The law was quickly challenged in Federal District Court as unconstitutional by practitioners, young patients and their parents, leading to split verdicts and appeals to the federal appeals court, which upheld the ban.
The three judges, appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, concluded that the law did not violate the free-speech rights of therapists and minor patients or the fundamental rights of parents, because it did nothing to prevent licensed therapists from discussing the pros and cons of conversion therapy with their patients. The law regulates conduct, not speech, the panel reasoned, and lies well within the power of the state to prohibit practices it considers harmful to minors.
Conversion therapy has had other setbacks in recent months. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed a bill on Aug. 19 banning conversion therapy for minors, making New Jersey the second state to do so. In June, a Christian group that was a leading proponent of conversion therapy disbanded after 37 years, and issued an apology to gays and lesbians for the harm it had caused.
The old idea that homosexuality is an illness that can be “cured” may at last be headed for the trash heap.