The Health Ministry issued a public warning on Sunday against conversion therapies that aim to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, saying there was no evidence that they work and that they could possibly do damage.
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“Therapists using this method create a false impression of scientific recognition of this method, although in practice there is no research evidence of the success of any such method for possible conversion and there is even evidence of possible damage,” the ministry wrote, adopting the position of the Council of Psychologists and the Israel Psychological Association.
The decision, signed by Health Minister Yael German, is based on a position paper drafted by the two bodies in November 2011 that was accepted by the ministry professionals after a discussion on the matter in June. “This is further proof that natural sexual orientation is not something that can or should be changed,” said German. “Sexual orientation is part of a person’s identity, and doesn’t need ‘treatment’ or ‘conversion.’”
The position paper notes that the public must also be warned of the dangers that could be expected from such “therapists,” and stressed that such treatments are neither ethical nor professional. “The impression is that most practitioners of conversion therapy are not members of the recognized mental health professions: psychologists, social workers, or psychiatrists. In the absence of a law on psychotherapy, treatment in such a complex and sensitive field by uncertified ‘therapists’ is neither ethically nor professionally acceptable, and the public must be warned,” the paper said.
The professional basis for, and empirical evidence of, conversion therapy’s success are rather weak, the paper notes. “Most studies show that there is no support for the efficacy of conversion therapy, while only a few claim success.” The professionals conceded that conducting such studies poses difficult methodological problems and that, “there are reasons to assume that ‘political correctness’ hinders the possibility of funding and publishing studies on the possible efficacy of conversion therapy.”
However, they said, the professional establishment cannot ignore the accumulating body of knowledge showing that conversion therapies are not effective.
Efforts to “treat” homosexuality have a long scientific and cultural history. Physicians, researchers, and clerics have long tried to “cure” homosexuality, which until the 1950s was regarded by most psychiatrists and psychologists as an illness.
Methods of treatment included drawing blood every 10 days, encouraging visits to brothels, abstinence, shock and hormonal therapies, hypnosis, and more.
A significant turning point came in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic Statistical Manual, declassifying it as a mental disorder.
Another leap forward in came in 2000 when the question, “Is it possible to change a person’s sexual orientation?” was addressed by the association in a fact sheet, which stated that changing sexual orientation is not a worthy goal for psychiatric treatment. It stated that there is nothing to be done about the issue and that the person must learn to accept himself. This determination led many physicians, psychologists, teachers’ associations and even religious organizations to take similar stands. Nevertheless, conversion therapy has not disappeared and continues to be offered by various therapists who believe that sexual orientation can be changed using various psychological methods.
The position paper drawn up by the Council of Psychologists and the Israel Psychological Association states that the essence of psychological therapy is to provide an accepting place in which the patient is helped to find his identity and make choices based on the awareness of his own needs, desires and fears.
“Conversion therapy creates a predetermined agenda, which is liable to miss the point of psychological treatment as called for by the profession’s ethical guidelines,” the position paper states. Therefore, the paper states, it is not professionally correct for the positions and values of the therapist to influence the way he relates to the patient, and certainly not the course of therapy. “If he [the therapist] cannot accept the patient from a non-judgmental, accepting, and empathetic position, he must invalidate himself from dealing with that patient.”
The ministry's document was welcomed by a variety of gay groups. “The Health Ministry warning comes after numerous studies and testimonies regarding the serious emotional harm suffered by LGBTs who underwent conversion attempts, including attempted suicides,” said Shai Deutsch, chairman of the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Task Force.
Religious gay groups were especially pleased. Because the Torah expressly rejects homosexuality, religious gays are more likely to seek, or be pressured to seek, conversion therapy. Rabbi Yosef Ron, who heads the religious gay group Hod, said it was cause to celebrate, but added, “The work is still great, because teens and young adults continue to suffer at the hands of therapists who are not certified professionals.”
The religious gay group Hevruta issued a statement saying, “It behooves us to stress and to warn that many of our members bear the emotional scars of such ‘treatments,’ particularly those taking place under the auspices of the Atzat Nefesh organization. Not a single one of our hundreds of members succeeded in changing their sexual orientation, even though a large portion of us have battled with all our might against our sexual tendencies.
“Those suggesting to our boys that they try conversion therapy are paving for them a path of suffering so that they can discover something that we at Hevruta already know: It’s just not possible.”
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, an active supporter of the Atzat Nefesh organization, which he stressed was a help line that referred people “only to professionals,” rejected the ministry’s decision. “I know many, many people who have been treated. What, they don’t exist?”
He said the ministry’s decision was political. “Any psychological treatment can do harm if it’s not done properly. Of course it must be done professionally. But sometimes I suspect that there are decisions that are political decisions.”