New Zealand announces conversion therapy ban with prison sentences for abusers

New Zealand Jacinda Arden Prime Minister conversion therapy Pride

New Zealand has introduced legislation to ban conversion therapy, insisting the horrific practice has “no place in modern New Zealand”.

The bill, likely to pass under the country’s Labour majority, would make attempts to change a person’s gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation punishable with up to five years in prison.

Anyone who subjects a minor or a person who has impaired decision-making to the debunked practice would face three years behind bars, while conversion therapy that causes “serious harm”, regardless of age, would be punished with five years.

While introducing the legislation on Friday (30 July), New Zealand’s minister of justice Kris Faafoi said: “Those who have experienced conversion practices talk about ongoing mental health distress, depression, shame and stigma, and even suicidal thoughts.

“Conversion practices have no place in modern New Zealand.

“They are based on the false belief that any person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is broken and in need of fixing.”

“Health professionals, religious leaders and human rights advocates here and overseas have spoken out against these practices as harmful and having the potential to perpetuate prejudice, discrimination and abuse towards members of rainbow communities,” he added.

Although New Zealand is set to leap ahead of many countries where conversion therapy is still legal, including the UK, activists have expressed concern over some of the wording in the bill.

Shaneel Lal, an anti-conversion therapy activist and survivor of the practice, told The Guardian that the term “serious harm” was problematic.

They said it “implies that it is OK to cause harm, if it is not serious harm”, and questioned how survivors would prove that the harm they had experienced should be considered “serious”.

While they said that the legislation had the “potential for real change”, Lal added that the bill’s wording also required survivors to prove “intent” by the person or organisation subjecting them to conversion therapy, which is legally difficult.

A conversion therapy ban was promised by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern during her election campaign

Ahead of her 2018 reelection, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden committed to a ban on conversion therapy.

In an interview with LGBT+ publication Express at the time, Ardern said: “This is a prime example of where an element of our system allows for quite damaging activity, which in modern New Zealand should just not be happening.”

She explained that she began to feel passionate about banning conversion therapy, which has often been described as torture, when watching the film Latter Days starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The 2003 film tells the story of a relationship between a closeted Mormon missionary and his openly gay neighbour, and Ardern, who was raised a Mormon herself, said: “That film never left me. It’s one of the reasons I feel quite strongly about this policy.”