Photo Credit: Dr. Michael J. Salamon
Dr. Michael J. Salamon

On November 30, the New York City Council passed a bill banning conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice touted as therapy allegedly designed to change a person’s orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 43 to 2, bans anyone from charging money for a service that claims to change sexual orientation or gender identity. Nine states have already passed such legislation, though the New York City bill goes a step further by prohibiting conversion therapy not just for children but adults as well.

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The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Counseling Association, along with other medical and scientific groups, have all asserted that reparative therapy for sexual orientation is dangerous and damaging and is based on an erroneous assumption that homosexuality is a mental illness.

For sexual orientation to be a mental disorder it would have to entail psychological disturbance or maladjustment. The weight of the evidence says otherwise. If it was a disorder, conversion therapy, often called reparative therapy, may have worked. However, there is no evidence that conversion therapy changes orientation and there is no standardized protocol for approaching a change to sexual orientation. The reason seems clear: the overwhelming majority of people are born into their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation issues may cause psychological distress if an individual is rejected by family or shunned by the community but that is a factor that is treatable.

While there was one abstention for the vote in chamber, of interest is that the only two individuals in the City Council who voted against the bill are religious. These Council members likely worry that the bill will restrict persons with religious conflicts concerning their orientation from seeking therapy. But nowhere in the bill is there any suggestion that providing therapy for those in emotional conflict is illegal. The bill is specific to therapy that is designed to change orientation, which has been proven to be harmful.

The Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement in 2012 withdrawing its support of conversion therapy. The organization noted that while it had initially supported the work of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality) an organization dedicated to providing conversion therapy, new available research indicated that reparative therapy was “deleterious” and the RCA could no longer supported such therapies. A New Jersey court agreed. In subsequent statements the RCA affirmed the halachic position against same-sex marriages but also acknowledged the need to treat all individuals with the proper respect.

The RCA represents a considerable segment of the Orthodox world. Even within its membership there are those who dissent from positions taken by the overall membership. Differing positions are discussed and respected. This ability to disagree is part of a democratic process and should be commended. There are, however, limits to taking an outlier position, particularly when it comes to providing health and mental health care.

Religion is based on belief. Science should be based on available current fact. Caring for people with emotional or psychological issues cannot be relegated to a belief in one’s anecdotal skills. That is the reason why there is a significant push for empirically supported therapies in mental health treatment. Knowing how to care for a patient requires proper training, education, and a willingness to follow the proven protocols.

True, health care of all types is not just science and requires a bit of artistic creativity. But the art of caring cannot be pursued at the expense of the patient’s well being. The science of healthcare requires adherence to the rule of “First do no harm.” The art of caring for people is to see them as they are and help them define their problems so they may be properly addressed.

The shame of the bill passed by the NYC Council is that it was needed in the first place. Providers should by law and professional ethics know they should not put themselves in a position of doing anything harmful.

Still, there are those who remain convinced that sexual orientation is a choice and that the choice can be shifted. For those of us who have seen individuals put through reparative therapies and the overwhelming harm it has done to them, the bill was not necessary. For those others, the bill was a very real necessity.

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Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).