California bill limiting sexual orientation change therapy draws criticism

The Sacramento BeeMay 23, 2012 

A bill that would ban minors in California from getting sexual orientation change therapy and require adults to provide written consent is running into trouble at the Capitol.

A wide range of groups representing mental health professionals want changes in the measure, saying the definition of the therapy is too broad and could prevent some legitimate treatment.

Psychiatrists and psychologists also say minors should be able to consent to therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation.

They cite legislation signed in 2010 that allows minors over the age of 12 to consent to their own mental health treatment if a health professional deems the minor "mature."

Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, said he is still "trying to resolve concerns" over the measure, Senate Bill 1172.

Jo Linder-Crow, executive director of the California Psychological Association, said that Lieu is not properly addressing her organization's concerns. Several psychologist and psychiatrist groups have banded together to oppose the bill unless it is amended.

"We are working to offer some adjustments and amendments which we expressed in a letter to Sen. Lieu," Linder-Crow said.

SB 1172 also allows former patients who have received the therapy to file a cause of action against a psychotherapist.

"We don't support anything that brings this wider birth of legal action against psychologists," Linder-Crow said.

The therapy at issue is rooted in the view that same-sex attraction is a matter of choice that is the result of stressors and can be changed. It's a minority position in the medical community, which does not consider homosexuality a disorder.

But Lieu nevertheless has run into opposition from mainstream mental health groups.

Their letter, co-authored by the California Psychological Association, California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, California Psychiatric Association and California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, said that the groups don't want to ban the therapy for minors. They see the issue as a choice minors should be able to make for themselves.

They also said the bill's definition of sexual orientation change efforts is too vague.

The authors argued that the language will have numerous interpretations and "may limit legitimate therapy for individuals that want to explore sexual orientation," Linder-Crow said.

The letter also expressed concern about the informed consent portion of the bill. Lieu's proposed consent form for adults would list various medical groups' views that the therapy is harmful.

The groups that wrote the letter want the form to include a description of the provider's qualifications and would include a position against the therapy by just one outside group.

Despite the concerns, Rebekah Orr, the communications director for Equality California, said she is confident that "in the end we will have a bill that protects people the best way possible."

She said the psychological and medical associations support the thrust of the bill, which Equality California proposed, "and are working to get it through."

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he has worked with many children who had been forced into the "so-called therapy."

"It is based on a lie that there's something wrong with being lesbian, gay or transgender," Minter said.

Minter said the damage from the therapy is "just brutal" and that many of the people he worked with chose to take their own lives.

Among the opponents are the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, which argue that the bill makes the state too involved in medical practice and that "denying therapy infringes on the rights of patients who want to change."

Dr. Karl G. Benzio, a psychiatrist who practices the therapy and is a member of the Christian Medical Association, said the therapy "helps a person heal." He said minors should be able to consent to the treatment and so should parents on their behalf.

"Wanting to protect them is important," Benzio said. "Wanting to help them grow is important. ... There's an agenda here that's not medically related."

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