Utah legislators on the House Judiciary Committee questioned on Friday the scope of a bill that would ban a controversial form of psychotherapy.
The bill, which was introduced last week, aims to curb the use of conversion therapy by licensed therapists on those under 18. If signed into law, Utah would be the 16th state to ban the practice.
Restrictions on conversion therapy would protect minors from “the harmful practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity by state-licensed healthcare professionals,” the bill’s chief sponsor, said Rep. Craig Hall, R- West Valley City.
But Committee Chairwoman Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, is proposing several amendments to the bill which she called too “proscriptive” for Utah therapists.
“They would not be able to respond appropriately, to their client’s desires for discussion because of the strict language in the bill,” she said.
The bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client, including mental health therapy that seeks to change, eliminate, or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions or feelings related to a patient or client’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Nathan Dalley, 19, said he underwent conversion therapy as minor. He teared up as he told lawmakers that he attempted suicide because of it.
“Thankfully, it did not work,” said Dalley. “But I know many of my friends who have passed away from suicide and they often attended forms of conversion therapy.”
Researchers have not drawn a direct link between conversion therapy and suicide. But it has been associated with high risks of depression and suicide among minors. All of the nation’s major medical and mental health organizations have disavowed the practice.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had worried the legislation could infringe on free speech or religious rights, but after seeing the bill does not oppose it.
Lisa Hansen, a marriage and family therapist who works with LGBTQ youth, told lawmakers she believes the bill can reduce the youth suicide rate in Utah. She also said that a “talk therapy version of conversion therapy” is just as dangerous as physical forms of conversion therapy. Those include using electric shock to create an aversion to images of the same sex.
Attorney Cliff Rosky, who helped craft the legislation, told lawmakers that Utah’s legislation is closely modeled after a bill that was signed into law by Nevada’s Republican governor in 2017.
Rosky said said he does not believe that amendments to the legislation offered by members of the committee will work as they rely on the wrong definition of conversion therapy. He said one of the proposed amendments to the legislation would exclude talk therapy altogether and focus only on aversive practices such as electric shock.
“Nobody is doing that anymore,” he said.
Still, Joan Landes, a licensed therapist, said she worried the ban could have a chilling effect on counselors who want to help people with unwanted same-sex attraction.
“If we don’t offer hope to people who want to deal with that — if we don’t offer them any hope or options — that in itself can create suicidality,” said Landes.
The hearing was continued to next week to allow more time for public comment.