Mass. bans therapists from efforts to change minors' orientation or gender identity

Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker Credit Massgov public domain Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who signed H.140 into law April 8, 2019. | (public domain).

Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker signed into law Monday a broadly worded bill banning therapy for minors with same-sex attraction that seeks to change their behavior.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference opposed the bill, saying it "attempts to create a solution to a problem which does not exist."

It added that it will "deny the right of parents to engage therapists who could help their child who is experiencing gender dysphoria and is confused and uncomfortable with this experience."

The bill passed almost unanimously in the Massachusetts legislature, with only eight members of the House of Representatives voting against the bill. In a Senate vote March 28, the bill passed with 34 in favor; five Republican Senators voted "present", and there was one abstention.

It was signed into law April 8.

House Bill 140 forbids health care providers from engaging in "sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts" during sessions with minors.

"Sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts" are defined in the law as "any practice by a health care provider that attempts or purports to impose change of an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity, including but not limited to efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex."

Under the law, health care professionals will be permitted to "provide acceptance, support, and understanding" of a minor's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, to "facilitate an individual's coping, social support and identity exploration and development", or seek "to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices", as long as they "do not attempt or purport to impose change of an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity."

Those who are found to have engaged in "sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts" may have their licenses to practice revoked or suspended.

In a March 5 letter to state legislators, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference said H.140 is unnecessary because "licensed clinical professionals are highly trained in their field and guided by ethical principles. Those principals fundamentally form the foundation of their respective professions. Today it is unethical for a counselor to discriminate against anyone, or try to push a goal in therapy that is destructive to the client or contrary to the clients stated desires."

It noted that minor who has "unwanted same sex attraction or gender identity, this law would prevent a licensed professional from counseling the minor towards a resolution to those unwanted urges … these professionals, with years of education and experience dealing with mental health issues, would be removed from the process of helping a young client struggling with these highly personal issues."

The conference also noted the impact on parents, who "have the primary responsibility for the welfare and education of their children. Parental rights would be completely eroded by this Bill. This fact is particularly true if their child is struggling with feelings that are unwanted or causing the child confusion and the parents want and need the help and guidance of a professional."

Massachusetts' bishops were also concerned over the bill's impact on religious liberty, saying the broad wording like goes beyond its intent.

The Massachussetts Catholic Conference stated: "As an example, a conscientious Catholic, working as a licensed professional, would counsel a minor, heterosexual or homosexual, to abstain from sexual activity. Would this violate the bill's specific prohibition efforts to 'change behaviors'? The language in the definition of the Bill certainly seems to prohibit such counseling."

"The Church's teaching acknowledges that the phenomenon of a person's discomfort with his or her biological sex can be a genuine and complex reality that needs to be addressed by psychological professionals with compassion and honesty," the conference added.

Senator Vinny deMacedo, who did not vote in favor of the bill, said that he does "not support coercive therapies," and that "if there were evidence of these practices taking place in Massachusetts, we would wholeheartedly support banning them."

However, "the vague wording of the legislation provides too much room for interpretation," he added, according to the Boston Globe.

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The Massachusetts Family Institute, which has opposed the law from the beginning, issued a statement on their website that they would be pursuing legal action on behalf of families and counselors impacted by the law. The Massachusetts Family Institute said the law was an attack on free speech.

"In the meantime, rest assured that the fight is not over," said the statement. "We are working with local families and counselors and national legal experts to challenge this extraordinarily invasive assault on the rights of parents and the free speech of mental health providers."

The Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson, who authored "When Harry Became Sally: Responding To The Transgender Moment," told CNA that he thinks the law is not rooted out of concerns for patient safety, but is meant to prevent people with traditional viewpoints from expressing those views.

"Of course the state has authority to regulate medicine to ensure safety, but that's not what this law is about," said Anderson. "This law imposes an ideological ban because the state disagrees with the viewpoint of certain professionals. It's not targeted at harmful practices, but at particular values."

There is also a bill in the Massachusetts legislature, H.110, that would ban health care providers from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of adults.

Massachusetts is the 15th state to pass a law banning conversion therapy.

Massachusetts' law contains wording identical to that of a California law passed in 2012.

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California's law prohibits any therapy "to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex" among minors.

A 2009 American Psychiatric Association task force recommended that the appropriate response to those with same-sex attraction involves "therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients … without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome," and that efforts to change orientation "involve some risk of harm."

The American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality to be a mental disease until 1973. A former president of the APA said in a 2012 video interview that within the organization, political stances "override any scientific results."

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