Conversion Therapy: Don’t Give Me the Harm Argument

25 November 2020

5.2 MINS

Under the guise of preventing harm from what is commonly known as “conversion therapy“, the Victorian Labor government has tabled the Suppression Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.

The harm argument is central to the bill, so assessing what the Bill defines as “harm” should be at the top of the mind for members of Victoria’s parliament who have been entrusted with the task of voting for or against it.

Just this week, the same sort of ban in three US states was struck down by the federal appellate court which concluded that such laws violate the free speech guarantees of the US Constitution. But for those with unwanted sexual feelings or confusion causing them anxiety and depression, banning therapies that support and help them in their life journey is more than just a free speech violation.

It violates the very principle of “do no harm” we expect governments and clinicians to uphold. It violates the notion that people can change. It coerces public acceptance of sexual fluidity, but only and eternally fixed in one direction — away from heterosexuality and acceptance of the sex-chromosomes they were born with.

Under these types of Bills, conversion therapy is defined as a “treatment or other practice that attempts to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

When we hear “conversion therapy”, it usually conjures up images of medieval torture, but that’s not even happening in Australia. Professor Patrick Parkinson, law dean at the University of Queensland, has confirmed that in Victoria there is no such “conversion therapy” harm to address, and that such therapies have been banned or dis-endorsed and out of practice for over 35 years! Furthermore, the government has produced no actual evidence to the contrary.

The harm argument used to justify this Bill not only fails to match up with the reality in Australia, it also fails the “pub test”.

Of course, nobody should be forced to do anything against their will, but you have to ask where that leaves those who want to change, and those parents who want the very best and safest treatments for their gender dysphoric children.

Remember we’re talking about helping those who are not happy how they are and are actually asking for help to change, and helping children through what is for the vast majority a transitory phase of gender confusion.

According to Dr John Whitehall, a disproportionate number of children with gender dysphoria also suffer with other mental health issues; 30% are on the autism spectrum and prone to self-harm, and 70% are more prone to depression. In a recent symposium, Parkinson referenced a Finnish study which found that 25% of these children were on the autism spectrum, there were histories of sexual abuse, anorexia nervosa, and many other issues that could lead them to suicide. Rather than harming troubled children, the standard therapeutic “watchful waiting” approach has a success rate of over 85%, wherein gender anxiety issues are naturally resolved without resorting to irreversible hormonal or surgical interventions.

Ironically, the very thing we’re seeking to ban in Victoria, Finland’s Councils for Choices in Healthcare is recommending: that children should receive broad-based psychological and psychiatric support and that this must be done at the school level.

Victoria’s politicians should closely consider the harm argument before casting their vote in support of the Suppression Practices Prohibition Bill, which will have an enormous impact on troubled children and adults wishing to deal with the emotional pain of childhood traumas.

As Whitehall points out, when you have authority figures, teachers etc only affirming, accepting and encouraging a new identity, how can a child step back from that? He says that affirmation is the gateway to puberty blockers, which are designed to retard normal development at puberty. If the adult male brain treated with oestrogen shrinks at a rate 10 times greater than natural aging after only 4 months, in what moral universe can this be administered to physically healthy children?

These “puberty blockers” impact the limbic system and may result in cognitive impairment. In simple terms, hormone blockers interrupt development and impact thinking, feeling, emotion, memory, sexuality and the inner sense of identity.

Commenting on the importance of the limbic system, the University of Queensland presents it as our survival kit:

“The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival … two of the major structures are the hippocampus and the amygdala… The hippocampus … is essentially the memory centre of our brains.

Here, our episodic memories are formed and catalogued to be filed away in long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex. It is also important for spatial orientation and our ability to navigate the world. The hippocampus is … a key brain structure for learning new things.

… The left and right amygdalae play a central role in our emotional responses, including feelings like pleasure, fear, anxiety and anger. The amygdala also attaches emotional content to our memories, and so plays an important role in determining how robustly those memories are stored…

Memories that have strong emotional meaning tend to stick… it also plays a key role in forming new memories specifically related to fear. Fearful memories are able to be formed after only a few repetitions. Suppressing or stimulating activity in the amygdala can influence the body’s automatic fear response, which kicks in when something unpleasant happens, such as a startling noise.”

Given the impact on the brain functions that enable children to learn and equip them for life, isn’t it reckless to administer hormone blockers to children? How is it logically and morally acceptable to administer these hormones to children with the aim of “pausing puberty” to give them time to consider their identity, when that very treatment retards their ability to make a mature considered decision? The centres that make such decisions are being blocked! This will inevitably cement gender confusion and funnel children towards irreversible and unnecessary surgery they will very likely come to regret. That’s the real harm of banning therapies to support children.

In its submission to the Queensland government, The National Association of Practising Psychiatrists (NAPP) noted that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis were included in the Queensland Government definitions of conversion therapy.

“There are different types of psychotherapy and these include supportive, cognitive behaviour therapy, psychodynamic, psychoanalytic, and brief psychotherapy. Psychotherapy as practised by psychiatrists as a treatment modality is not conversion therapy.”

NAPP acknowledge change is possible when underlying issues are addressed:

“The focus of both sexual orientation and/or gender identity can change over the course of psychiatric treatment. This is not conversion therapy. A patient may experience a change in the object of their sexual attraction during a course of psychiatric treatment.

For example, a patient with a psychotic disorder, who has delusions and hallucinations about men, may lose these symptoms as a result of psychiatric treatment. … During the treatment and recovery from an episode of depressive illness or anxiety disorder, a patient may experience a change in sexual attraction or gender identity…

Children and adolescents may temporarily have thoughts of being of a different gender to their gender assigned at birth due to the influences of social contagion, multiple psychosocial factors (including a history of sexual abuse), and the presence of psychiatric illness. …

People who have undergone medical and surgical transgender treatment and subsequently regret this treatment should be acknowledged and not be banned from stating their experience on public media. Discussion of these concerns and fears with their physicians is not conversion therapy and must not be mislabelled as conversion therapy.”

The harm argument supporting a ban is no argument at all. This bill would do harm to fundamental freedoms, to adults with unwanted sexual attraction, to those with complex underlying mental health issues, and to community relationships between parents and teachers, between governments and health professionals. But most importantly, it will set vulnerable kids on a harmful pathway of treatment that retards their ability to think straight, make decisions and navigate life ultimately ending in castrations, mastectomies and a whole host of other health issues.

Please don’t give me the harm argument for supporting this bill.


Originally published at
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash.

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