“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?
“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?
Should mental health providers be allowed to try to “cure” minors of their homosexuality?
In the last legislative session, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that would prohibit mental health professionals from practicing (on minors) so-called “conversion therapy” – a type of pseudo-science intervention designed to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that a federal judge has blocked this legislation on free-speech grounds, saying that the new law “likely … bans a mental health provider from expressing his or her viewpoints about homosexuality as part of … treatment.” The judge also “found fault with the evidence cited by proponents of the law that conversion therapy puts patients at risk of suicide.”
Unsurprisingly, the Christian legal defense organization bringing the suit applauded the decision. Said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute:
This victory sends a clear signal to all those who feel they can stifle religious freedom, free speech, and the rights of parents without being contested.
What should we say about a case like this?
If someone really believes that homosexuality is tantamount to mental illness, then you can understand why she’d want to try to “treat” it – especially if she had a willing “patient.” The problem, of course, is that her values are all wrong in the first place, her notion of mental health is inexcusably out-of-date, and the “patient” is too young to be truly autonomous. “The rights of parents” do not extend to child abuse.
Should people be allowed to believe and say stupid things? Ordinarily, yes, but not so much when it translates directly to serious harm of others. The law can stand in the way of harm. “Patients” in these sorts of cases have typically been subjected to extraordinary community pressures, shaming, fear, and so on, all in a coordinated effort to pathologize a perfectly normal and healthy way of being. The illness is in the community, therefore, and not in the patient.
But I have to say: this practice of conversion therapy has been ringing in my ears recently. Last week, I gave a talk on “anti-love biotechnology” that might one day be used to diminish potentially dangerous types of love or attraction. My research with my colleagues on this topic suggests that this kind of technology might be just around the corner, and is already partially here (I won’t get into the scientific details in this post, but you can hear about them in the audio from my talk).
I began by discussing “obviously” harmful types of love, such as domestic abuse cases in which the battered individual forms a strong emotional tie with her attacker as a way to deal with the ongoing trauma. Then I brought up pedophilia, incest, adulterous love, and love for a cult leader. And for these cases, it seemed that there might be at least a surface-level argument for some kind of intervention or “treatment”, although there would obviously be a lot of details to work through first.
But then the issue of “curing” homosexuals came up as an immediate counterpoint. And what about interracial love and inter-caste love? None of these types of devotion seem problematic from a liberal mindset, but they are precisely the sorts of love-related phenomena that certain groups in society might be very happy to stamp out if they had the right set of tools.
So could there ever be a case for using anti-love biotechnology? Here are some of the ethical considerations that I raised in my talk (from the transcript):
A very general sort of concern—before we can look at any details—is that anti-love biotechnology might end up being used to try to homogenize the sexual and relational landscape. And the big concern here would be that people might try to eliminate various sexual preferences or forms of relationship that are not actually harmful—or that might even be healthy or positively worth pursuing—just on the grounds that they weren’t normative, or that they somehow conflicted with a narrow-minded set of supposed values that we should really be spending our time trying to push back against.
What this consideration gives us reason to think about is that there is a much wider debate going on in society about what sorts of values we should hold in the first place with respect to things like love, and sex, and relationships—and also how we should conceive of the notion of health, and mental health, and well-being, and obviously many other things as well. So biotechnology or no biotechnology, there is always going to be this wider conversation between the insights of progressivism and the insights of conservatism – as well as between the forces of secularism, and the forces of religion, and so on – and it’s not something that is in any way unique to the sorts of interventions we’re talking about today.
The question will always be: How can we use new technologies for good rather than for ill, while simultaneously trying to reach some sort of consensus on what sorts of things should be considered good, and what sorts of things should not be considered ill?
The lesson, I think, is that progressive-minded people have their work cut out for them in terms of this wider debate. And “conversion therapy” isn’t the only problem. Indeed, “anti-love biotechnology” is already being used in some communities to “cure” things like masturbation and same-sex attraction. From my talk:
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “psychiatric drugs are being given to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students … at the request of rabbis … and marriage counselors” as a way of suppressing sexual feelings, so that the “patients” can find it easier to comply with rigid Orthodox norms about love and human sexuality.
As stated by Professor Omer Bonne, director of the psychiatry department at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem:
Some behaviors put Haredim in conflict with their values and cause them mental problems, even to the point of depression.
My view concerning drug treatment in such cases has changed. For example, when I was young, idealistic and less experienced, whenever I had a case of homosexuality, masturbation – or, as Haredim put it, ‘compulsiveness in sex’ – I would say: ‘Homosexuality is not a mental problem, masturbation is certainly not a mental problem or even a medical problem. I do not treat people who do not have a medical problem.’
Over the years, I saw that people who do these ‘awful’ things suffer terribly because of the conflicts they create. Those urges, impulses or behaviors place them in conflict with their society, and then they become depressed. In these cases, I would indeed prescribe medicines that block these conditions.
As the article goes on to state:
Bonne acknowledges that this may be an exceptional approach, but others agree with it, too. “Currently, their society has no good solution for this,” he says, referring to homosexual urges. His remarks suggest that prescription drugs are often the only way out.
To me, this scenario just underscores the dangers and absurdity of religious fundamentalism, and the importance of trying to push back against this kind of close-mindedness as a general rule. But that is a long-term project. What should be done in the meantime?
Just think about this case with the yeshiva students. Suppose that there really is no practical way for these young Jewish men to leave their Orthodox communities. Their perfectly normal, natural, and healthy sexual urges are in irreconcilable conflict with the values of their religious group. And those values are so firmly and pervasively in place that the rest of us in society may find it impossible (at least in the short term) to effect any sort of change within that alternate reality.
What is a young, gay yeshiva student to do? What if, in virtue of the beliefs and pressures of his community, his sexual orientation is causing him daily, excruciating suffering? Could there be any sort of argument for his going to the local psychiatrist and asking for a chemical “treatment” for his “problem”?
Secular progressives like Governor Jerry Brown of California tried to use the force of law to prevent just this sort of scenario, as I mentioned at the start of this post. But he was rebuffed on grounds of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. These are indeed deeply-rooted, important considerations in Western societies, and some people do find a sort of personal and communal value in adhering to a bronze age, biblical worldview. As Wilfred Owen wrote:
O what insane abuses, desperate pangs,
Annihilations of the Self, soul-suicides,
They wreak upon themselves to purchase—God!
I guess that’s their right to do so. But they don’t have the right to inflict these annihilations of the self—these soul-suicides—on children. Given that the California law was designed to ban conversion therapy on minors specifically, I think it ought to have been allowed to stand. Apparently, the defense was unable to convince the judge that any actual harm is incurred by taking a child to the therapist so that he can have his innermost feelings treated like a disease. Perhaps the judge is a fellow believer; I don’t know.
Any price, it seems, to purchase—God!