Ireland takes first step to ban conversion therapy. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is still twiddling his thumbs

Two people pray with Bibles

The Irish government has taken the first step towards banning conversion therapy just days after an all-island coalition demanded the harmful practice be outlawed.

The Republic of Ireland’s minister for children Roderic O’Gorman has asked government officials to investigate how conversion therapy, which refers to efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, could be banned once and for all.

The pseudoscientific practice has been debunked by almost every major psychiatric and medical organisation, while research has shown that conversion therapy survivors experience worse mental health outcomes.

Ireland’s three-party coalition pledged to outlaw conversion therapy in its programme for government last year – and moves are finally being made to protect LGBT+ people from the damaging practice.

Officials in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth have prepared a scoring paper on conversion therapy and are working with the Department of Health to forward proposals on legislation, reported on Thursday (15 April).

Minister O’Gorman told the news outlet that the government “must be proactive in banning practices that not only propagandise harmful and discriminatory messages, but ones that also have serious negative consequences on a young person’s mental health, with the potential to inflict long-lasting damage.”

He continued: “Legislating for a ban on conversion therapy will send a clear and unambiguous message to everyone, both younger and older, that a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is not up for debate.”

Writing on Twitter, the children’s minister added: “No one should be forced into being something they are not. So called ‘conversion therapy’ is a dangerous pseudo-scientific practice with damaging consequences. We have a duty to ensure no one in Ireland suffers this.”

Conversion therapy has ‘no place in any civilised society’

Adam Long, advocacy and communications officer with Ireland’s National LGBT Federation, welcomed the minister’s “clear statement of intent to outlaw harmful and abusive so-called ‘conversion therapy’.”

“This practice has been labelled a form of torture by the United Nations and has no place in any civilised society,” Long told PinkNews.

“A comprehensive ban is required, including in religious settings where the vast majority of this so-called ‘therapy’ is conducted.

“We also very much welcome the recent comments of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom who, in calling for a ban to be implemented, made crystal clear that such a law in no way conflicts with religious rights.”

Moninne Griffith, CEO of LGBT+ youth charity BeLonGTo, urged the government to enact “a complete ban” on the “dangerous and discredited practice”.

“In Ireland, LGBTI+ young people under 18 are particularly at risk of conversion therapy as parents and guardians can consent to mental health treatments on their behalf, including conversion therapy,” Griffith told PinkNews.

“In fact, the 2001 Mental Health Act sets out that those under 18 do not have the right to refuse treatment once their parents have consented – leaving some LGBTI+ young people with no choice but to be subjected to this harmful practice.

“Attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through conversion therapy is a form of family rejection that can result in serious mental health challenges. LGBTI+ young people deserve acceptance and should never be forced to change who they are or who they love.”

Minister O’Gorman’s comments come just days after the formation of the Anti Conversion Therapy Coalition (ACTC), an all-island, cross party group calling for the practice to be banned in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The ACTC has received backing from political parties on both sides of the border right across the political spectrum, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, Fianna Fáil, People Before Profit, Labour, the Green Party, Aontú, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Sinn Féin senator Fintan Warfield has been pushing for conversion therapy to be outlawed in the Republic of Ireland since 2018, when he first introduced legislation to prohibit the practice. Warfield’s bill is currently in its third stage in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house.

Christine O’Mahony, public relations officer with the ACTC, said the group was “delighted” to hear that minister O’Gorman plans to outlaw conversion therapy, and urged the government to proceed with Warfield’s legislation.

“It is so great that the government has responded so quickly to our campaign,” O’Mahony said.

“Although O’Gorman has not fully outlined his plans yet, we believe that there is no need for the government to draft their own bill, when Warfield’s bill is already there and has received cross-party support.

“We look forward to communicating with O’Gorman in the future and thank him for taking such an interest in our campaign.”

If the political will from government is there, then everything is in place

Warfield said he has previously been told by government officials that pre-legislative research and an “impact assessment” must be completed before his bill can pass through the remaining stages and become law.

“We are currently engaging with government ministers to ascertain exactly the status and progress of this pre-legislative work and are pushing to have debate time allocated as soon as possible,” Warfield told PinkNews.

“In recent weeks we have seen a re-stating of the overwhelming public support for a ban along with the existing political consensus. If the political will from government is there, then everything is in place to give effect to a powerful piece of legislation. I will be working hard over the next few weeks to facilitate this.”

Conor Stitt, who worked with Warfield to draft the bill in 2018, warned that any ban would have to prohibit all forms of conversion therapy, noting that research suggests the majority of these practices take place in religious settings.

He also said the bill “needs to be trans-inclusive”, pointing to research conducted by the UK government in 2018 which found that trans people are at greater risk of conversion therapy than cis people.

While the Irish government is pressing ahead with a ban, the UK government continues to drag its heels on the issue.

It is almost three years since Theresa May’s government committed to banning conversion therapy in England, Scotland and Wales. No legislation has been brought forward.

Equalities minister Liz Truss has insisted that legislation will be advanced to prohibit conversion therapy, but LGBT+ people have become increasingly frustrated at the stalled progress. Three members of the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel quit in March, citing a hostile environment, while it was later announced that the panel was being disbanded altogether.

Meanwhile, ministers in Northern Ireland committed to outlawing conversion therapy in September 2020. The Department of Communities is currently drafting a sexual orientation strategy, due for publication by the end of December, which is expected to lay out legislative plans.