Brand new Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) is calling for a federal ban on all therapy focused on trying to convert gay people into becoming heterosexuals. There have been some state-level bans, including the one Lieu got passed in California when he was in the state's Senate.
But those bans have only prohibited licensed therapists from using conversion therapy on minors. This new federal legislation would ban therapists from offering it to anybody, regardless of age. He wants to classify it is an "unfair or deceptive act or practice" and give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) control over punishing violators. He explained how it would work to Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed:
"The bill is … broader, obviously, because it's nationwide," he said. "But, what this bill seeks to do is to reaffirm what medical science has already stated formally: Being gay or lesbian or transgender is not a mental disease, illness, or defect that needs any sort of cure."
He aims to do so on a federal level by applying the existing laws addressing "unfair or deceptive act[s] or practice[s]" to conversion therapy. The bill would make illegal any commercial conversion therapy and any advertising for conversion therapy under certain conditions. The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the provision the same as it does other prohibited practices.
"This bill uses the FTC," he said. "There's nothing unusual about government going out and trying to protect consumers against fraud. It happens all over the place."
But does it happen in the field of therapy? That's the big issue. Remarkably, when asked by Geidner whether the FTC had ever been used to control what mental health services were offered by professionals, Lieu didn't know. His office hadn't researched it.
I contacted the American Psychological Association to try to get some insight. Their response was to point me to a 2009 resolution discouraging efforts to treat homosexuality as a mental illness or disorder to be cured, saying there is "insufficient evidence," to support conversion therapy. Note that their tone is actually a bit milder, because it's impossible to say definitively that conversion therapy never works, just that the science doesn't show that it does. Unfortunately they didn't answer my question as to whether there are other examples of the federal government regulating particular types of treatments offered by therapists. I asked the question again and will update if I get a response. (UPDATE: A spokesperson responded via email: "To their knowledge, there are no federal regulations that ban specific treatments. Most health regulations simply limit providers to their scope of license. So that psychologists cannot provide dentistry, for example.")
Here are some things to think about Lieu's possible bill:
- Conversion therapy is considered fraudulent because, well, it really doesn't work. Does that mean there's some sort of threshold where an entire type of therapy should be considered invalid by regulators because of the quality of the outcome? If a treatment for depression only works 50 percent of the time, is it invalid? What about 25 percent? What about 10 percent? Is Rep. Lieu comfortable with a federal agency designed to regulate trade deciding the validity of other types of therapeutic treatments or just this one? Does he really think it would stop with this one? Christopher Ferguson raised similar questions in 2012 in Time, pointing out a number of psychological treatments that have proven over time to be ineffective, but whose failures haven't necessitated government intervention.
- By what authority does the federal government think it can intrude on the therapy choices made by adults, not just minors? At least the state's authority for banning conversion therapy of children is often predicated on protecting them from abusive treatments ordered by their own parents. Adults are more than capable from realizing if and when this therapy is not working and cease pursuit on their own.
- What about the people who claim the treatment worked for them? I know very few people (including myself) actually believe this treatment is effective (now, anyway—let's ignore the lengthy history that actually created this form therapy). Is it the role of the federal government to intervene if people think these folks are deluding themselves? Is this really the same as shutting down some fake cancer treatment medication, for example?
- At what point does regulating therapy become regulating speech? Lieu isn't talking about blocking therapeutic treatments that may cause perceivable physical harm or abuse, like electric shock treatment. He's talking about banning a disfavored idea—that sexual orientation can be altered. Here's how he describes his goals in a prepared statement: "I believe that a federal ban is the only way to completely protect young people from the harmful effects of conversion therapy and to ensure that they are celebrated, not shamed, for their identities. I look forward to working with the Administration and my colleagues in Congress to pass a national law that forbids this destructive and discriminatory pseudoscience once and for all. In the meantime I will seek to block any federal funding from supporting this discredited and cruel practice." This really sounds like he is trying to regulate an argument ("celebrated, not shamed"), not a form of treatment.