The submission below was given via a Zoom call to Members of the Justice Committee on Wednesday the 15th of September 2021, as a follow-up to the Society’s written submission. The submission was presented by committee members Bronwyn Rideout and Mark Honeychurch, and MPs asked questions after the submission was read out.
We often hear of conversion therapy as a thing that happens in the United States of America – controversial figures such as Joseph Nicolosi, and groups like NARTH and Exodus International. So it’s been horrifying to read stories in the news over the years, and especially recently, about New Zealanders who have endured this dubious therapy.
At the NZ Skeptics, we’re all about evidence. There is no good quality evidence that conversion therapy works, and Wikipedia rightly calls it a “pseudoscience”. Not only this, but there’s a lot of evidence that conversion therapy is harmful.
Professional bodies around the world have evaluated the evidence, and broadly agree that conversion therapy should never be used. In New Zealand, the relevant professional bodies consider the practice to be against their code of ethics.
We know there was a study conducted by Robert Spitzer that is often used as evidence for the efficacy of conversion therapy, but Spitzer retracted the study, and later said “I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from this study. The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change.”
J. Michael Bailey’s 2016 review of the scientific literature concluded that “There is no good evidence that sexual orientation can be changed with therapy, and we strongly doubt it can be.”
A 2017 literature review from Cornell University looked at 47 scientific papers on conversion therapy. Of the 13 papers that were able to come to a conclusion about the therapy, 1 claimed it was successful and 12 claimed it was ineffective or harmful. The review concluded that “there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention… There is also powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful.”
The evidence is clear. Conversion therapy does not work, but it is harmful.
The international studies we’ve seen show that most people go through conversion therapy because of their religious belief, and this is often due to pressure from their church. This has also been the case for many of the hundreds of New Zealanders who have been through conversion therapy.
Not that numbers should matter, but we’re at the point now where half of New Zealanders are not religious. There really should be no exemption for religious groups to be able to continue facilitating or offering conversion therapy. We hope that this bill will ensure that any individual – or organisation – involved in providing conversion therapy will be held accountable.
We know that health practitioners are not above making bad decisions, such as offering unproven therapies. For example, some GPs in NZ currently offer their clients therapies such as homeopathy that we know through scientific testing don’t work. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some health practitioners would consider it acceptable to offer conversion therapy. We therefore think it is unwise to give health practitioners any kind of exemption in this bill.
Many countries, such as India, Taiwan, Brazil and Germany – and parts of Australia, Canada and the US – already have conversion therapy bans in place, and Israel and the UK are currently in the process of introducing a ban. Several other countries, such as Argentina, Fiji and Samoa, have a specific ban on health professionals offering conversion therapies. We’re a little behind the curve on this important issue, but it’s great that as a country we’re finally doing something about it.
Given the lack of evidence of efficacy of conversion therapy, and the clear harms it causes, it seems like a no-brainer that we should have a law banning the practice. We hope that this new piece of legislation not only becomes law here in New Zealand, but also that it doesn’t end up being watered down to the point that it becomes ineffective. We hope to see this legislation become something that properly protects those who are at risk from being given conversion therapy, no matter who is organising or providing it. These at-risk people absolutely do not deserve to be told that their sexual orientation, or their gender, is “wrong”, and that they can be “fixed” through the use of a pseudoscientific, damaging treatment.
The NZ Skeptics’ Submission
on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill
The NZ Skeptics are a New Zealand/Aotearoa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence-based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. Healthcare decisions are an important part of this ideal, and we strongly support any measures that seek to follow best evidence and help protect consumers from harm.
In line with our sister organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom, it is the position of the NZ Skeptics that we support the banning of conversion therapies as outlined in Section 5 of the proposed Act.
‘Conversion’ or ‘reparative’ practices incorporate a wide range of activities that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. In both the past and present, such therapies have included so-called clinical treatments such aslike ice-pick lobotomies, electro-convulsive therapies, and aversion programmes that include pharmaceutical regimens that induce vomiting while church-based organisations utilise exorcisms, and intensive praying sessions (either in groups or one-on-one).
To date, no evidence has been produced in New Zealand or internationally to support the effectiveness of conversion therapies. Instead, the only consistent outcome of the practices listed above is harm and life-long trauma to those who have endured them. Reputable organisations worldwide such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, Royal Australian College of Physicians, the NHS, and the United Nations have acknowledged and published similar findings.
The absence of support from these and major regulatory and professional bodies and employers has consequently driven such practices underground. The treatments and their providers are unregulated; neither undergo rigorous and ongoing continuing education programmes or annual auditing, as required of any other professional charged with the care of the minds and bodies of New Zealand citizens.
Religious freedom is not violated when banning conversion therapy. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief stated to British Members of Parliament that the banning of conversion therapy in no way violates freedom of religion under international law because of the state’s obligation to protect the life and dignity of LGBT+ persons.
As part of our mission to promote evidence-based policy-making and healthcare, the NZ Skeptics continually seek the advice of experts and findings of contemporary research with which to inform our positions on a variety of topics. The evidence is clear that conversion therapy is worse than ineffective, indeed it appears to be outright dangerous; provision of such therapies should be seen by New Zealanders as akin to fraud.
However, the banning of conversion therapy is not simply a health issue, but one that encompasses personal, religious, political, and societal beliefs and practices about gender diversity and identity; Elements which cannot be appreciated with statistics alone. Ongoing persecution of LGBTQIATakatāpui+ communities internationally is an ongoing concern for our organisation, and we see the presence of conversion therapy in New Zealand as a terrible proof of the insidiousness and persistence of bigotry both within our country and outside our borders. To this end, NZ Skeptics finds it vital to consider the voices and recommendations of persons who are either experienced in matters of conversion therapy, or who have been the targets of such unethical treatments, and place our support behind them.
In general we support the wording of this Bill. Here are our thoughts on the parts of the Bill that we feel need changing to ensure it adequately protects people from harmful conversion practices:
We do not think that health practitioners should be exempt from this Bill. We consider that the caveats in 5 (2) are sufficient to protect health practitioners who are “offering legitimate support or therapy”, and we are concerned that health practitioners could conceivably claim to be offering conversion therapy within their “scope of practice”. As such, this appears to be a loophole that we would like to see closed. We recommend the removal of 5 (2) (a) from the Bill.
We do not believe there should be an exemption for religious people or groups in the Bill, and we hope that MPs will resist any pressure from religious groups for any kind of religious exemption to be added. Similarly, we do not think that it would be appropriate for an exemption for parents to be added to the Bill. We recommend that no further exemptions are added to the Bill.
We believe that organisations (companies, charities, societies, churches) are often involved in offering, organising and promoting harmful conversion therapy, and would like to see the inclusion of the ability for charges to be brought against organisations as well as individuals. We recommend the inclusion of organisations as well as people as parties to an offence.
We believe that the inclusion of only imprisonment is inadequate to allow for effective sentencing. We would also like to see a fine added, to give judges more options for choosing an appropriate sentence for the offending, and for organisations we would like to see the inclusion of appropriate sentencing options, such as the removal of charitable status. We recommend the addition of more sentencing options, such as fines.
We think that clause 10 is important, and that consent should not be considered a defence in this piece of legislation. We recommend that clause 10 is kept in its current state.
We believe that the requirement of clause 12 for consent from the Attorney-General before prosecution can occur is an unnecessarily high bar. Our understanding is that Attorney-General consent is usually required for laws where there is a significant risk of misuse of the legislation. This does not appear to be likely to be the case for a conversion therapy law, which is designed to protect minority groups who are at risk. We recommend the removal of clause 12 from the Bill.
We believe that monitoring and feedback are important, and that for new legislation to be effective, it should include a review process. For example, it would be good to see this law, when enacted, go through a review of the process and its effectiveness within its first five years, and to allow for amendments as necessary as a result of the review’s recommendations.
Finally, we would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Shaneel Lal and InsideOut in their campaign, and support the important work they have done in this area.
Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on this important piece of new legislation.