Banning conversion therapy: a threat to freedom and conscience?

Sunday 29 October, 13:4515:15, Harvey Goodwin Suite, Church HouseChallenging Orthodoxies

A mounting number of countries across the world have introduced some form of national ban on conversion therapy. Other states, cities and provinces are looking to do the same. While the UK government may not push to legislate on such a controversial issue in the King’s Speech, it is still under pressure to proceed with some form of Conversion Therapy Bill. The chair of the Labour Party, Anneliese Dodds, has committed to bringing in ‘a full, no loopholes, trans-inclusive ban on conversion therapy’.

Legislating on the issue has led to huge rows about who might be included in the Bill. The government flip-flopped, eventually indicating it would ban ‘all forms of conversion therapy in England and Wales – including those targeting trans people’ – stopping attempts to induce young people and ‘vulnerable adults’ to switch their sexual orientation. Even then, supporters of a ban argued the legislation didn’t not go far enough, especially concerned at a rumour that a ‘consent loophole’ will allow adults to agree to the practice in some circumstances.

There are also concerns on both sides of the trans debate. On the one hand, there is concern that the rights of transgender people and those questioning their gender identity are not protected by the law. NHS England insists that all forms of conversion therapy are ‘unethical and potentially harmful’ – and should be banned entirely. Others worry that legalisation may well interfere in the counselling of young people suffering gender dysphoria. It could also have a chilling effect on freedom of conscience and speech for medical professionals, teachers or religious groups – who often find themselves offering advice on sex and gender.

According to the government, the aim of their originally posed Bill was to ‘protect people’s personal liberty to love who they want to love’. But this raises many dilemmas. For example, some would argue that adults should be free to make their own choices without government interference.

Is there agreement on what ‘conversion therapy’ means? Does the very existence of such therapies undermine and disrespect gender fluid, gender questioning, or other LGBT people? What about the argument that gender ideology itself is a form of conversion therapy, aimed at lesbian and gay sexuality? What constitutes the legitimate exercise of conscience when practical conflicts arise, for example, with anti-discrimination equality laws or medical-service provision? Can freedom of conscience interfere with the rights of some groups to live free from intimidation? How should we proceed when matters of conscience come into conflict with external pressures and expectations?