Ninth Circuit upholds Washington’s ban on ‘dangerous and discredited’ conversion therapy

"This is a massive win for LGBTQ+ youth out of Washington," said one advocate.

LGBTQ+ rights advocates on Tuesday applauded a ruling by a federal court in Washington State which upheld the state’s ban on “conversion therapy,” saying the ban will continue to save lives.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the Washington Legislature was correct to ban conversion therapy for minors in 2018, prohibiting the practice of offering so-called treatment that claims an ability to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of patients.

The law passed in 2018 added “[p]erforming conversion therapy on a patient under age 18″ to the state’s list of unprofessional conduct for healthcare providers.

The practice is closely tied to severe mental health struggles among people who undergo the therapy, with LGBTQ+ children nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide if they are subjected to it. A study published in 2018 found that more than 60% of children attempted suicide after a therapist attempted to change their sexual orientation.

“We are thrilled by today’s decision, which ensures that Washington’s lifesaving law can continue to be enforced and that LGBTQ children in Washington will not be subjected to these discredited practices, which have been rejected as unsafe by every major medical organization in this country,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), who argued in court in favor of Washington’s law.

California became the first state to ban conversion therapy in 2011, and 20 other states and more than 100 cities and towns have followed since then. Bans on the practice have also been upheld by federal courts in Illinois, Maryland, and Florida, and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A conversion therapist challenged Washington’s law in 2021, claiming the ban violated his freedom of speech and his religious liberty, but the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that the law pertains to professional conduct rather than speech.

Two of the judges on the three-judge panel also noted that states consistently regulate healthcare providers’ conduct to protect public safety.

The Washington Legislature “relied on the fact that ‘[e]very major medical and mental health organization’ has uniformly rejected aversive and non-aversive conversion therapy as unsafe and inefficacious,” the court ruled.

Groups including the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association have rejected conversion therapy for decades, saying the practice violates the Hippocratic Oath and also carries clinical risks to those subjected to it.

“Laws like Washington’s are critical to protecting minors and parents from being harmed by unethical therapists who falsely claim to be able to prevent a child from being gay or transgender,” said Mathew Shurka, co-founder of Born Perfect, NCLR’s campaign to end conversion therapy.

“As a survivor of more than five years of conversion therapy, I know firsthand how damaging these practices are to young people and their families,” Shurka added. “Being LGBTQ is not a mental health disorder. Trying to change such a fundamental aspect of a person’s identity is not only impossible, it is profoundly dangerous and causes serious, lasting harm.”

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Julia Conley is a Common Dreams staff writer.

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