SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Legislation to prevent psychotherapists from helping young clients diminish homosexual feelings or desires is rapidly making its way through the California Legislature.
Senate Bill 1172 would prohibit so-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy for persons under age 18 and require adults who want to try the counseling to sign a release form stating the therapy is ineffective and possibly dangerous.
Introduced by State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, S.B. 1172 is sponsored by Equality California, a San Francisco-based homosexual activist group.
“Sexual-orientation conversion ‘therapy’ isn’t just ineffective; it’s dangerous — even deadly,” said Rebekah Orr, a spokesperson with Equality California. “Adults who undergo these discredited treatments are at high risk of depression, self harm and suicide. For minors — often forced into these abusive treatments by well-meaning but misguided parents who are misled by unscrupulous therapists — those risks are even more pronounced.”
Wayne Besen, executive director of a group called Truth Wins Out, which fights what it calls “anti-gay extremism,” said reparative therapy “is just consumer fraud designed to enrich people at the expense of the mental health of others, and certainly nobody under 18 should get anywhere near that, because there’s coercion involved by its very nature. We’ve got parents trying to tell kids, ‘You don’t change, we won’t pay for your college.’ It’s very manipulative.”
“Gays become very angry at the term ‘reparative therapy’ as if someone will try to repair or fix them,” said clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, who heads the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Encino, Calif. “In fact, our clients find the term consoling since it says, in essence: your behavior does not make you ‘weird, a degenerate or a pervert.’ Rather, your homosexual behavior is your attempt to repair what you did not get as a child, but it doesn't work. We can show you other ways to fulfill your emotional needs."
Robert Spitzer, considered the father of modern psychiatry, recently recanted a study that supported the use of reparative therapy for same-sex attracted persons who are highly motivated to change.
The political alternative to reparative therapy is “affirmative therapy,” an "embrace-your-gay-identity" approach that gives clients acceptance and support to handle the stress of same-sex attraction.
The California Psychological Association (CPA) opposes S.B. 1172 unless it’s amended. Although the CPA and a coalition of other mental-health professionals have “grave concerns” about a person attempting to change his sexual orientation in therapy, “we also have a concern about using the legislative process as a means of dictating professional practice,” said CPA Executive Director Jo Linder-Crow.
Not only would the legislation “create a broad opportunity for someone to bring legal action against a psychologist,” Linder-Crow said, but the informed-consent form written into the bill is too precise and dictatorial, not allowing individual therapists enough flexibility to adapt the form to their own private practices.
Calling the bill “well-intentioned” but “flawed,” Linder-Crow said, “We are working very hard with Senator Lieu’s office in an attempt to fix it.”
Nicolosi said , “The two big unanswered questions are these: Is reparative therapy effective? Is it harmful?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, no one can answer these questions with any scientific certainty. “Because the mental-health professions have failed to address these two issues,” Nicolosi said, “they’ve left a gap, a vacuum in the science, which is being filled by gay activists who are pressuring the legal system.”
He adds, however, that neither is there “evidence as to the effectiveness of gay affirmative therapy. It is so politically correct that it goes unquestioned.”
Pointing out the difficulties of demonstrating a benefit for any form of psychotherapy, psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover said there are too many human variables in therapist-client relationships to design rigorous scientific experiments to prove the “results” of this or that approach one way or the other.
If you’ve got “a good psychotherapist sensitive to the needs of clients, one who respects their autonomy and right to self-determination, such a therapist will be neither ‘affirmative’ or ‘reparative’; they will follow the wishes and inclinations of the client. They will not come into therapy with a predetermined ideological viewpoint,” said Satinover, who has a private psychiatric practice in Weston, Conn., and has also taught constitutional law at Princeton University.
“Slapping a label such as ‘affirmative’ or ‘conversion’ onto psychotherapy,” Satinover explained, “is an essentially propagandistic act.” He said it is all “just psychotherapy.”
When Politicians Attempt to Be Doctors
Unfortunately, psychological scientific literature is written in jargon not easily intelligible to non-experts.
“Psychotherapy is a medical treatment (to use the term loosely), and you don’t have lawmakers outlawing one form of appendectomy vs. another because they know full well that they have no expertise to make that kind of judgment,” Satinover observed. “It is absolutely inappropriate for non-experts such as Senator Lieu to think that he has an expert opinion that should be written into law.”
Even the wording of the bill indicates that Lieu — “probably without being aware of it” — has “made reference to claims by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association that these organizations absolutely do not make,” Satinover said.
An American Psychological Association task force report three years ago stated that there were “no scientifically rigorous studies” to make a definitive statement about whether reparative therapy was safe or harmful and for whom.
According to Satinover, the bill also represents “an absolutely unwarranted intrusion by the state into the private lives of individuals. The principle of autonomy, self-determination, which in constitutional law is referred to as liberty, is so essential in our country that it’s amazing to me these lawmakers don’t understand that this kind of authoritarian intrusion into people’s lives is reprehensible.”
Pacific Justice Institute attorney Matthew McReynolds said he was unaware of any other state with a similar legislation in the works. But “I would be surprised if any other state has gone this far, because it’s so susceptible to constitutional challenge.”
Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder writes from Ukiah, California.