Exaggerations, False Claims & Isolated Youth: Thoughts on California’s New Law
Though California has given final approval to State Senator Ted Lieu’s legislation banning so-called “reparative” therapy for minors, the battle to protect California youth from this dangerous treatment is hardly over.
Anti-gay groups, such as the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), were quick to announce that they will challenge the new law in court. NARTH calls the bill “repressive legislation that limits parental rights and the right of individuals to seek assistance for unwanted homosexuality.” The new law bans attempts by mental health professionals in California to change a minor patient’s sexual orientation.
I’ll surely have more comments on the lawsuit as the details emerge. For now, I’ll just offer three (additional) preliminary thoughts on the legislation and on those who challenge it. (For my first set of thoughts, and for some background on the legislation, see this 9/30/12 post.)
• First, in considering whether the new law unfairly or unconstitutionally silences those who object to homosexuality (as opponents of the law suggest), it’s important to keep in mind that the law does not impose any general ban on advocating against homosexuality or promoting supposed “cures” or “reparative” therapies. The law is much more narrow: it regulates the mental health treatment that licensed or credentialed professionals (along with their interns and trainees) provide to their patients—and it only applies to patients who are under 18. In other words, it prevents mental health providers from using the power and weight of their professional credentials or licenses during treatment with minors in a way that the state has deemed dangerous and harmful. This does not seem like a free-speech problem to me; it instead appears to be a modest effort to prevent the abuse of a powerful professional privilege when caring for children. There is no free-speech right to maintain one’s status as a mental health professional while also using dangerous and discredited forms of therapy on minors. It’s worth emphasizing as well that the law has no effect on what parents or others may tell children outside the context of treatment.
• Second, the individuals and organizations challenging the new law have, in statements about the legal challenges, continued their tradition of making exaggerated and misleading claims. NARTH falsely states in a press release, for example, that “[a]necdotal stories of harm” form the basis of the new law’s ban on “reparative” therapy for minors. NARTH wants us to believe that California legislators just heard some scary stories and then rushed to pass a bill. But the bill was based on assessments of “reparative” therapy published in mainstream scientific journals and supported by major mental health associations. The opening sections of the bill make clear, for example, that the legislation is based on studies and position statements from, among other organizations, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Pan American Health Organization. (For more on these organizations’ positions, see again the 9/30/12 post.)
• Finally, in thinking about whom the law protects and about the damage it might prevent, it’s important to ponder who exactly is likely to end up in “reparative” therapy in the first place. Are children with LGBT-supportive parents and a supportive social network likely to seek out this treatment? Unlikely. As Josh A. Goodman explains in an excellent piece over at the Huffington Post, the children subjected to “reparative” therapy are probably among the most isolated of LGBT youth: this dangerous therapy, he writes, “is generally part of a double (or triple) whammy” in which young people lack “a safe environment not only in their home and school, but [in] their therapist’s office, too.”
Stayed tuned for more comments and analysis as the legal challenges move forward.