Picture credit: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty
Artillery Row

Good riddance to the “conversion therapy” bill

It would have represented an attack on free speech

There was speculation last week that the UK government’s bill to ban “conversion therapy” has been quietly killed off, given that time had all but run out to publish draft legislation before the King’s Speech in November. When Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse asked on September 14th if the bill would be ready in time for the King’s Speech, Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt deftly sidestepped the question.

Now, however, “sources” have told the Sunday Times that the government is expected to formally announce the legislation will no longer be brought forward, five years after Theresa May’s government first vowed to make conversation therapy a criminal offence, with ministers concluding it has proved problematic or ineffective in other countries (most notably Australia and Canada).

That’s a significant victory for free speech

That’s a significant victory for free speech – and one that’s thanks in no small part to the thousands of FSU members and supporters that used our digital campaigning tool to email their MPs urging them to scrutinise the Government’s proposals and consider the unintended consequences for freedom of speech if “conversion therapy” is defined too broadly. 

One obvious concern is that people of faith, particularly religious leaders, would be vulnerable to prosecution if they tried to dissuade a member of their community from becoming actively gay, or offered to pray for them, or invited other members of their community to pray for them. Provided such attempts at persuasion don’t extend beyond speech and involve an element of coercion, what right does the state have to police what people of faith say to other members of their communities?

But even if you don’t share that concern, there are other risks associated with such a bill. We know that some advocates of the ban want it to cover any attempt to persuade children suffering from gender dysphoria not to have medical procedures that they may later come to regret, such as a double mastectomy. A bill that prevents parents from trying to talk their children out of such procedures is clearly unacceptable from a free speech point of view.

Of course, there are some forms of “conversion therapy” that few people would object to being banned, such as attempts to stop someone from being gay or transgender via exorcism, physical violence or food deprivation. No-one is disputing that “treatments” of this kind have no place in a free society, but a bill isn’t required to ban them. Such practices are already illegal in the UK.

Where things start to get more complicated is at the softer end of the spectrum if “conversion therapy” is defined too broadly — specifically, practices that centre on children and adolescents. In the past few years, a “gender affirmative model” has taken hold in clinical settings like the NHS’s controversial, soon-to-be-closed Tavistock Clinic. Faced with cases of gender distress, this model encourages clinicians to affirm rather than question a child’s chosen gender identity, before then putting them on a medical pathway that can have lifelong, irreversible consequences. We now know that even puberty blockers, intended to delay the onset of puberty so children suffering from gender dysphoria can have more time before deciding whether to have surgery, can cause lifelong harms, such as bone disease and infertility.

The risk, then, is that a poorly drafted bill would effectively criminalise parents, teachers and doctors who deviate from the “affirmative” approach. Even a carefully drafted bill would be in danger of being amended by members of the LGBTQ+ lobby as it went through parliament so it ended up banning ‘conversion therapy’ of that kind. That might seem like an outlandish fear, but in the Australian state of Victoria, where “conversion therapy” has been banned since 2021, a parent who refuses to support their child’s request for puberty blockers is at risk of prosecution.

Trans activists and trans lobby groups like Stonewall pooh-pooh this as scare-mongering, but anyone familiar with the fraught wrangling now taking place over the meaning of the word ‘sex’ in the 2010 Equality Act can attest to the unintended but profound consequences that an undefined word or phrase can have on the right to freedom of expression when it comes to society’s most controversial issues.

Canada’s Bill C-4, which two years ago made it an offence to “cause another person to undergo conversion therapy”, illustrates what’s at stake here. According to Canada’s criminal code, it is now a crime to “repress a person’s non-cisgender gender identity” or to “repress… a person’s gender expression that does not conform to the sex assigned to the person at birth”.

Note the subtle inference here that “gender identity” and “gender expression” are not in fact contestable theoretical postulates, but cold, hard, unquestionable facts. In effect, Canadian parents who want to explore the many, varied reasons why their children are showing signs of gender confusion, or who might want their child to see a psychotherapist before agreeing to irreversible medical procedures, now risk prosecution and up to five years in jail. By contrast, trans rights activists and health professionals who encourage children to change their gender — a form of “conversion therapy”, after all — have nothing to fear from the new law.

There’s a whiff of Soviet-era Lysenkoism about any state sanctioned attempt to protect a supposedly scientific framework from scrutiny, but given that ours is a culture in which tolerance of dissent from gender identity ideology is already in short supply, it’s easy to see how a “conversion therapy” ban could quickly be weaponised by trans activists — witness the attempted cancellation of Irish singer Roisin Murphy for expressing her concerns about the over-prescription of puberty blockers.

Doctors have both a right and a duty to recommend what in their judgement is the best clinical pathway for a patient who identifies as trans, particularly if that patient is a minor. As per the findings of NHS England’s interim Cass Review last year, clinicians at the Tavistock said they felt under pressure to adopt an unquestioning affirmative approach in a manner that was at odds with the standard process of clinical assessment and diagnosis that they had been trained to undertake in all other clinical encounters. How much more pressure would they feel under to take this approach if a bill banning “conversion therapy” was passed? Would it require them to break the Hippocratic oath on pain of prosecution?

For all those reasons, the FSU welcomes the government’s decision. We have been lobbying hard against this bill for over a year and are delighted the government has listened, not just to us and our members, but to all the other advocacy groups — Fair Play For Women, LGB Alliance, Sex Matters, Transgender Trend, to name but a few — that are concerned about the bill’s impact on free speech. Make no mistake, this is a major victory for free speech.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover