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Head Of Bioethics Society Supports Proposed Conversion Therapy Ban In Allegheny County

Nelson Antoine
Revelers at the annual gay pride parade hold up a giant rainbow flag in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, June 3, 2018. This year the parade focused on the general elections scheduled for October, with the theme "Power for the LGBT. Our Vote, Our Voice."

Allegheny County Council is considering an ordinance that would ban mental health care professionals from providing so-called “conversion therapy” to minors.

Conversion therapy aims to change a queer person’s sexuality to straight, or to convince someone who is transgender that their actual gender is the one that was assigned to them at birth.

90.5 WESA’s health reporter Sarah Boden spoke with Dr. Alex Kon, a professor of pediatrics at U.C. San Diego and president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. While the society doesn’t have an official position on conversion therapy, Kon says the practice should be prohibited.

Dr. Alex Kon: There's a lot of data that shows that conversion therapy doesn't work and does not lead to people having a change in sexual orientation or gender identity. And there is a lot of data that suggests that it can be extremely harmful especially to children. So personally, I strongly oppose conversion therapy in all of its forms.

Sarah Boden: What are some of those harms?

Kon: Well, we know a lot of people who go through conversion therapy end up with significant depression. Some of them even with suicidal ideation and some commit suicide which is a big problem, obviously. Those that don't have severe depression can still have major problems with intimacy and sexual dysfunction. There can be a loss of spiritual or religious comfort and that can be very distressing to a lot of patients, as well. And this can last for years, if not an entire lifetime.

Boden: What is it about conversion therapy that creates these results?

Kon: Well, a lot of people do conversion therapy differently, but there's a general way that people seem to approach it that convinces people who are going through conversion therapy that what they're doing is wrong. That their feelings are somehow wrong or abnormal. And these are very deeply held feelings that people have that are clearly immutable in most cases and that can be extremely damaging to people.

Boden: Regarding parental rights, in some states parents who are Jehovah's Witnesses aren't allowed to deny their children blood transfusions even though their faith prohibits this practice. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a state can determine when a child's welfare supersedes parental religious freedom. Unlike blood transfusions, conversion therapy is not lifesaving medical care. So, do you think it violates parental rights to ban conversion therapy, speaking again as a pediatrician?

Kon: I don't think it in any way does so, because we know that it doesn't work and doesn't change children's sexual orientation or gender orientation, and self-assessment. Therefore, what we're really doing is protecting children who can't consent for themselves. It's clear that we need to not be doing this to children.

Boden: The proposed ban in Allegheny County only focuses on mental health care professionals, so conceivably interventions could be provided by non-health care practitioners. Do you think the ban here in Allegheny County goes far enough?

Kon: I'm not sure if there's a way to ban it altogether. I would certainly favor that. But clearly that raises some legal issues that are beyond my level of expertise.

Boden: Considering all the harms that conversion therapy can cause, what do you think motivates parents to send their kids to conversion therapy?

Kon: I think in general parents really want what's best for their children. Parents love their children. And we know that in a lot of subcultures and communities in the U.S., people don't accept homosexuality and transgender [people], particularly in youth. And that can be extremely difficult for children and for families, so they opt for this intervention. The problem is we know that that's misinformation. We know that conversion therapy doesn't work, and actually causes a lot of harm. So, what we need to do is make sure that parents get the correct information. And we need to protect children so that they’re not forced into these interventions that we know are harmful.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.