What’s wrong with banning ‘conversion therapy’?

9 July 2021

Our in-depth resource takes a deep look into what a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ would really mean.

In May 2021, the UK government announced plans to ban conversion therapy. The announcement stated:

“Legislation will be introduced, protecting people from the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy in the UK.

“Many forms of the practice are already prevented under current legislation, but this new ban will ensure that it is stamped out once and for all.”

The government promised that “As soon as parliamentary time allows, and following a consultation, the ban will be introduced in parliamentary legislation.”

Just what is ‘conversion therapy’ and what would be the consequences of a legal ban?

What is ‘conversion therapy’?

There is no clear definition of the term ‘conversion therapy’. No one claims to practise ‘conversion therapy’. There are no UK therapists who have ever described themselves as ‘conversion therapists’. The term was invented by LGBT activists as a pejorative description of therapy for unwanted sexual attractions.[1] No good therapist should set out to ‘convert’ a client but should work with a client to help the client achieve the client’s own objectives.

A government definition

A Government Equalities Office report uses the following definition:

“So-called conversion therapies, sometimes also referred to as cure, aversion or reparative therapies, are techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These techniques can take many forms and commonly range from pseudo-psychological treatments to spiritual counselling. In extreme cases, they may also include surgical and hormonal interventions, or so-called ‘corrective’ rape.”

This definition is worth unpacking. As already stated, no therapist would describe themselves as someone who sets out to ‘convert’ or ‘cure’ clients. Therapists set out to help clients. The definition refers to “techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” A ban on any ‘techniques’ to achieve change in sexual orientation or gender identity would criminalise helping someone either to move away from unwanted sexual attractions, or to de-transition from transgenderism. The definition includes ‘pseudo-psychological’ treatments – who knows what that means, but it could include conversations about sexual attractions. It is likely intended to mean anything that has actually helped people who wanted to be helped. ‘Spiritual counselling’ is also included in the definition which would therefore catch conversations or prayer about sexual temptations.

Surgical or hormonal interventions are not therapy in any meaningful sense of the word and have not been used by any practising therapists, though in some cases psychiatrists (i.e. medical professionals) may have used them in the past. These would also be illegal under existing law, along with ‘corrective rape’. In fact, the government has had to admit in response to a Freedom of Information request that it has no evidence that ‘corrective rape’ has ever been used as a therapeutic practice in the UK. The inclusion of ‘corrective rape’ is therefore entirely spurious and looks like a disingenuous attempt to conflate legitimate ‘therapy’ with criminal actions.

Professional definition

Various professional counselling and psychotherapy organisations have agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on conversion therapy in the UK. This document defines ‘conversion therapy’ as follows:

“For the purposes of this document ‘conversion therapy’ is an umbrella term for a therapeutic approach, or any model or individual viewpoint that demonstrates an assumption that any sexual orientation or gender identity is inherently preferable to any other, and which attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity, or seeks to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis.

“These efforts are sometimes referred to by terms including, but not limited to, ‘reparative therapy’, ‘gay cure therapy’, or ‘sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts’, and sometimes may be covertly practised under the guise of mainstream practice without being named.”

According to this definition, no therapist is allowed to assume that any sexual orientation is preferable to any other. Neither can a therapist assume that any gender identity is preferable to any other, no matter what the client wishes. There are no limits placed on the type of therapy engaged in, which could therefore include private conversations about sexual attractions. The definition even includes any ‘individual viewpoint’ which means that professionals are prohibited from holding the view that any sexual or gender identity is preferable to any other. This definition therefore promotes professional viewpoint discrimination.

Campaign definition

The campaign definition from the ‘Ban Conversion Therapy’ website states:

“Conversion therapy includes medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious, cultural or any other interventions that seek to erase, repress or change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of a person.”

The site aims to “ban conversion therapy in all its forms,” and specifically mentions religious interventions. It states that conversion therapy should be illegal for anyone “whether they are coerced or have consented.”

No legal definition

At the time of writing, we do not know how ‘conversion therapy’ will be defined in any proposed law. The definitions above are very wide-ranging and a legal ban with any definition like these is likely to criminalise Christians and others who want to help people with unwanted sexual attractions or to de-transition from transgenderism.


The allegation of harm

The government describes ‘conversion therapy’ as a ‘coercive and abhorrent’ practice. Everyone agrees that no therapist should engage in coercion. The question arises as to what is abhorrent about the practice if it is consensual? ‘Corrective rape’ as included in the government definition is certainly abhorrent, but is already illegal and there is no evidence that it is practised. The same applies to surgical and hormonal treatments. All that therapists want to be able to do is to have a conversation with someone who wants to be helped. What is so abhorrent about that?

The government wants to ban ‘conversion therapy’ on the basis that the practice is harmful. But what is the evidence that it is harmful? The Memorandum of Understanding merely states that the practice of conversion therapy is “potentially harmful.” This is a meaningless claim since any therapy or medicine is ‘potentially harmful’. Going outside is ‘potentially harmful’. In fact, just about anything is ‘potentially harmful.’

The American Psychological Association notes that “sound data on the safety of SOCE [sexual orientation change efforts] are extremely limited.” This makes sense because it is not easy to recruit volunteers to participate in a controlled study about such therapy, and it would probably be unethical to do so. For similar reasons, there is no controlled study of gay-affirmative therapy either.

The best existing study, that followed people from when they began therapy through to its conclusion, found no evidence of harm.[2]

While there are people who claim that they have been harmed by therapy or counselling which they describe as ‘conversion therapy’, there are also many others who claim to have been helped to move away from unwanted sexual attractions. Some of these stories can be read or watched online. The bottom line is that the allegation of harm is unsubstantiated.


A ban could criminalise Christian ministry

The government’s definition of conversion therapy clearly references ‘spiritual counselling’ as a type of conversion therapy. Many of the key campaigners for a conversion therapy ban are clearly calling for ‘pastoral care’ for those with unwanted sexual attractions to be outlawed.

Pastoral care dubbed ‘conversion therapy’

Baptist minister Steve Chalke said on Twitter that a ban on conversion therapy “must include all coercive practices disguised as the ‘pastoral care’ of those with so called ‘same-sex attraction’ within some religious groups.”

Prayer dubbed ‘conversion therapy’

In a video embedded in another tweet, Steve Chalke mentions oppressive religious teaching, prayer, and so-called pastoral care as forms of conversion therapy which must be banned.

The Ozanne foundation sent a letter to the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, urging her “to make it clear that the UK will not tolerate those who practice conversion therapy in any form, whether consensual or not, and that those who practice it will be prosecuted.” Director Jayne Ozanne, who is also a Church of England synod member, warns about “children and young adults, who go to their religious leaders for help as they believe their desires to be ‘sinful’.”  Elsewhere, Ozanne has said:

“I and others will state, when a religious practice, whether an act of prayer or exorcism or deliverance, is done with the express intention of trying to make you something that you are not, or trying to cause you to be anything other than LGBTQ+, that is harmful to your mental health – it can be physically damaging to you too, it can be sexually damaging to you – we have to be clear that when religious practice is causing harm it must be banned.”

Note how she wants to outlaw prayer for people who request prayer for unwanted sexual attractions. Ozanne, in her General Synod motion, clearly defined conversion therapy to include talking therapies, prayer.” This is what she wants to outlaw.

Prime Minister promised not to criminalise pastoral support

Concerns about how a ban on conversion therapy could criminalise Christian ministry prompted the Evangelical Alliance to write to the Prime Minister pointing out that:

“An expansive definition of conversion therapy, and a ban along such lines, would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality. It would place ministry leaders at risk of arrest for encouraging young people to maintain chastity until marriage. And it would criminalise a member of a church who prays with another member when they ask for prayer to resist temptation as they are attracted to someone of the same sex but do not wish to act on it.”

The Prime Minister replied to the Evangelical Alliance promising to “continue to allow adults to receive appropriate pastoral support (including prayer), in churches and other religious settings, in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” He did, however, reiterate his commitment to “end the scourge of gay conversion therapy,” without explaining how this would be done.

Activists want no loopholes for religious practices

The Prime Minister’s letter attracted responses that demonstrate how keen activists are to criminalise Christian ministry. Labour MP Angela Eagle tweeted, “This proposed ‘loophole’ is so large, there would effectively be no ban on conversion therapy.” LGBT campaign group Stonewall also objected:

“We know that half of the conversion therapy practices that take place in the UK are faith-based. So any ban that has loopholes for any type of practice — including religious practices — will leave vulnerable LGBTQIA+ people at risk of further harm.”

In other jurisdictions where ‘conversion therapy’ has been outlawed, there have not been exemptions for Christian ministry.

A wide range of Christian ministry activities could be criminalised

The lack of a clear definition of ‘conversion therapy’ means that there is a wide range of things that could be criminalised. These could include private consensual prayer about sexual temptations, consensual conversations about sexual temptations, sermons about sexual morality, and quoting the Bible on sexual morality. Any conversation or encounter which suggests that someone needs to repent of sexual sin could result in a criminal prosecution. This could also include in evangelism, church membership or baptism classes, in small groups or one-on-one encounters.

A ban would criminalise certain consensual conversations

All that people with unwanted sexual attractions really want to do is have someone who they can talk to about it in a safe environment. But activists are clear that talking therapy is ‘conversion therapy’, and they want it outlawed. Let’s be clear than, if ‘conversion therapy’ is banned, certain consensual conversations will be banned. No free society should ever contemplate criminalising private conversations, yet that is what the government seems intent on doing. Anyone who cares about free speech should realise just how totalitarian and oppressive this would be. Certain types of conversations could risk a criminal conviction. Is that the kind of society we want? You could be reported for the conversation you had in your home.

A ban would breach human rights

It should be clear by now that a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would constitute serious breach of human rights. It would clearly violate the right to freedom of expression which is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). If certain types of conversations are criminalised, then we do not have freedom of expression.

A ban would also attack freedom of conscience (Article 9), as those who wish to follow their consciences and move away from unwanted sexual attractions will not be able to do so. Neither will those who want to help others be able to do so.

It would also amount to an attack on freedom of religion (Article 9), since teaching Biblical sexual morality or counselling abstinence from sex outside of heterosexual marriage could be criminalised.

Such a ban would clearly discriminate against ex-gay people and therefore violate Article 14 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of any status.

We previously published a short paper: ‘Ten reasons not to restrict same-sex attraction therapy which explains ten ways in which a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would violate human rights.

A ban would criminalise parents who disagree with transgender treatment

A leading QC has provided a formal legal opinion stating that banning conversion therapy would unintentionally make it illegal for Christians to tell a child who is questioning their gender that they should remain in their birth sex. Prominent human rights lawyer Philip Havers QC, considered several scenarios including Christians encouraging a teenager struggling with gender dysphoria to accept their biological gender. He concluded that any of the proposed definitions of conversion therapy could criminalise this type of conversation, even in a family setting. He also said that a vicar preaching official Church of England doctrine on marriage being between a man and a woman could be criminalised by a legal ban on conversion therapy.

There have already been cases of prospective adoptive parents being refused adoption because of their views on same-sex parenting. In another case, Christian parents found that they were being accused of ‘neglect’ for refusing to refer to their daughter by her adopted male name. They were concerned that the child could be taken into foster care by social services. Outlawing ‘conversion therapy’ could easily lead to more state intervention with Christian parents finding themselves investigated by social services, or worse, for teaching biblical sexual morality to their children.

A ban would harm people who want to be helped

The professional ban is already harmful

A professional ban on ‘conversion therapy’ has been in effect from some years due to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy referred to above. Professionals who are members of any of the organisations that signed the document can lose their accreditation if found to have offered ‘conversion therapy’.

We now know how harmful this has been for people who are seeking help. Clinicians are very concerned about the risk of being accused of ‘conversion therapy’. This means that they dare not question the transgender identities of even young children. Instead, they have been affirming the children’s acquired gender and, in some cases, prescribing physically harmful treatments like puberty blockers. It took a High Court case to put a halt to such prescriptions.

A former psychotherapist at Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service wrote an academic article explaining how the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy is to blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is time for the professional ban to be overturned, rather than introducing a legally-enforceable criminal ban on ‘conversion therapy’.

A ‘must stay gay’ or ‘must stay trans’ law

A legal ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would amount to a ‘must stay gay’ law. Those who are feeling unhappy with unwanted sexual desires will be unable to access help. It would also be a ‘must stay trans’ law, with those considering de-transition unable to obtain help and counsel. The numbers of de-transitioners appear to be increasing, though research on the phenomenon is limited because it is deemed politically incorrect. If there is a legal ban on ‘conversion therapy’ then those who regret their transition will have nowhere to go.

It is even the case that a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would likely enforce a ‘must stay asexual’ law. The Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy defines sexual orientation as:

 “For the purpose of this document, sexual orientation refers to the sexual or romantic attraction someone feels to people of the same sex, opposite sex, more than one sex, or to experience no attraction.”

Given the MOU definition of ‘conversion therapy’ above, this means that it would be a criminal offence to counsel someone who is unhappy with experiencing no sexual attraction.

The effect of all this is to harm those who want to be helped and to criminalise helping them. We can only expect that this will lead to increased mental anguish and even suicide. The testimonies of those who have been helped to move away from unwanted sexual attractions need to be heard and listened to. People who want to be helped should be allowed to seek help.

We need to resist the ban

We have seen that banning ‘conversion therapy’ is likely to criminalise a wide range of Christian ministry activities. It would breach human rights and harm people who are seeking help. A legal ban on ‘conversion therapy’ should therefore be resisted by anyone who cares about Christian ministry, human rights or the ability of people who are suffering to seek help they can trust.

This is clearly a gospel issue. The gospel calls for repentance from sin as well as belief and new life in Christ. Sexual immorality, indulging in sexual temptations, and deceiving people about your true gender are all sinful, with severe warnings in scripture. A ban on conversion therapy would therefore directly hinder the preaching of the gospel.

All Christians should be concerned about this and want to oppose any proposed ban on ‘conversion therapy’ – not just seeking temporary loopholes for churches but defending civil liberties for everyone.

Please write to your MP to air your concerns about this. Please also follow Christian Concern and sign up for our emails to be kept in touch with the latest news and information on this issue. Above all, join us in praying that God would be merciful and not allow our government to criminalise ‘conversion therapy’.

Key Resources

For more helpful materials on ‘conversion therapy’ see the following resources:

Conversion therapy FAQ
Answers to common questions about ‘conversion therapy’

Ten reasons not to restrict same-sex attraction therapy
Explains how a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would breach human rights.

Free to change – finding freedom from unwanted sexual attraction
Links to various testimonies of change in sexual attraction.


[1] Douglas C. Haldeman, ‘Sexual orientation conversion therapy for gay men and lesbians: A scientific examination’, in J. C. Gonsiorek & J. D. Weinrich (eds.), Homosexuality: Research implications for public policy. Sage Publications, 1991: 149-160.

[2] In 2002 Douglas Haldeman admitted that it was almost impossible to obtain a random sample of people who had been through ‘sexual reorientation’ therapy. Find out more.

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