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Allegheny County Council Votes To Restrict Conversion Therapy For Minors

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
A proposal to ban conversion therapy for children drew dozens of supporters to an Allegheny County Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. The bill passed 13-2 in a fast-tracked vote.

Licensed mental health providers may soon be barred from providing so-called conversion therapy to LGBTQ youth in Allegheny County. In a 13-2 vote Tuesday, Allegheny County Council approved a measure to prohibit the treatment for minors.

While conversion therapy claims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, Democratic bill sponsor Paul Klein said research shows the treatment is associated with depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse in LGBTQ youth.

“This practice causes real harm and, as such, is a public health and safety threat,” Klein said.  And while “this measure before us today is about bringing to an end, as a matter of law, a harmful and discredited practice, it is also about preserving human dignity.”

Professional medical organizations have long criticized conversion therapy for causing severe mental health problems. It is not clear how often conversion therapy is practiced by mental-health providers in Allegheny County. 

Council opted Tuesday to fast-track Klein’s bill rather than send it to committee for review. Twelve councilors, all Democrats, supported the move, which requires a two-thirds vote of the 15-member council.

Council’s three Republicans -- DeMarco, Kirk, and Tom Baker -- opposed the fast-track process, preferring to vet the proposed ban in the Health and Human Services committee. But last year, a similar measure died in that committee, and there was early concern the same thing could happen this time: The Health and Human Services committee is chaired by Cindy Kirk, who cast one of the two "no" votes against the ban Tuesday.

DeMarco cast the other no vote.  Baker ultimately joined Democrats in supporting the measure.

DeMarco warned that restricting conversion therapy will restrict counseling options for children and, thus, invite costly lawsuits over free speech.

“This council would be siding with the viewpoint that any effort to change or alter or manage your identity or your same-sex attraction would be wrong,” DeMarco said. “And I believe it’s illegal for a government agency to be taking sides on any issue.”

DeMarco had proposed a countermeasure Tuesday that would allow conversion programs if a child consents, and if the treatment doesn’t cause physical pain. But council effectively rejected that approach by approving the more sweeping ban Tuesday.

The new bill isn’t precisely the same as the measure council failed to act upon last year. In an interview prior to council’s meeting, Klein said the older bill was “broader and probably more vague,” and that religious conservatives worried it might be applied to religious counselling in churches. Klein said the language of the new bill was tailored more narrowly to only address licensed mental healthcare providers due to “concerns about efforts to bring clergy under the same umbrella [and raising] issues around separation of church and state.”

The bill now awaits county executive Rich Fitzgerald's signature.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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