Conversion Therapy Supported by a Quarter of Doctors at BMA Annual Meeting

Becky McCall

September 23, 2021

Over a quarter (26%) of doctors do not support the British Medical Association (BMA) lobbying to ban LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, according to a vote cast at last week's annual representatives meeting (ARM). 

The results have sent shock waves among medics who identify with the LGBTQ+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer plus] community, says Dr Emma Runswick, a junior doctor working in NHS trusts in Greater Manchester, who argued for the BMA to lobby the Government to ban the practice.

After the debate she experienced her first ever panic attack, such was her shock that such a high percentage of her profession did not support a ban on conversion therapy – the practice of actively attempting to change someone's sexual or gender orientation. Many other LGBTQ+ medics also expressed distress at the result on social media.

"The result [specifically the 26% against lobbying the Government] affects how we see our fellow professionals, because ​even if there are other reasons, it feels like a quarter would like to allow conversion therapy on LGBTQ+ people. This is an attack on our personhood as queer people. It's personally very difficult," Dr Runswick said. 

However, despite the shock, she admitted that it was important that the motion had been passed and that the BMA will lobby for a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people, and lobby the General Medical Council (GMC) to impose sanctions on doctors who practise conversion therapy. "This is a really positive development in the campaign to ban conversion therapy," added Dr Runswick.

The motion called on the BMA 'to lobby the UK Government to ensure this damaging practice is banned'; and also to 'lobby the GMC to introduce sanctions up to and including erasure of medical practitioners performing LGBTQ+ conversion therapy'. 

Overall, the meeting found the practice of LGBTQ+ conversion to be unethical and damaging, with 59% of representatives voting for the BMA to lobby the Government to ensure "this damaging practice is banned", while 26% were against.

Also, 49% voted in favour of the BMA lobbying the GMC to introduce sanctions against medical practitioners who perform LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, while 35% were against.

Process and Recording of the BMA Debate Leads to Formal Complaints

It wasn’t just the discussion about conversion therapy that generated controversy but also the debate proceedings themselves.

At one point a request was received, from a speaker against the motion, to effectively end the discussion and move to other business, objecting to the motion on the grounds that it had included transgender people when the original motion was only about conversion therapy in LGBQ people. Effectively, the speaker saw transgender people as a different argument. To move to other business, two-thirds of attendees would need to vote in favour of moving to other business; only 50% did.

That half of representatives voted to move to other business, in addition to the 25% who voted against the motion, does not sit well with Dr Runswick. "It shows we have a lot of work to do in our profession. We need to convince our colleagues that conversion therapy for LGB people and trans people is [a] bad thing and ​explain why it is worrying to approach these issues as illnesses to be cured, or dangers to be stamped out," said the doctor, who sits on the BMA Council and is a member of Doctors in Unite, the UK's oldest medical trade union.  

A formal complaint related to the language used during the conversion therapy debate has been raised and referred to the BMA's independent external complaints investigators. What precisely it’s about is unknown but means the recording of the entire event is unlikely to be available for some time.

"We are aware of the serious concerns that have been expressed by some members about some of the language used during the Annual Representative Meeting debate and on social media on conversion therapy," write the BMA in a statement, confirming their "support for the LGBTQ+ community and our complete opposition to conversion therapy".

They asserted their opposition to conversion therapy as a violation of human rights and of medical ethics. "As doctors, we know at first hand that this practice can cause depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. LGBTQ+ people are twice as likely to die by suicide as non-LGBTQ+ people."

LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy

By definition, the UN describes conversion therapy as "interventions of a wide-ranging nature" that are "aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender".

Most often, these days, conversion therapy involves psychological, religious, or cultural abuse, said Dr Runswick. "A UK -based study found that 20% of people who say they've been offered conversion therapy have been via a healthcare professional," she added.

"There is substantial evidence that such attempts do not work, especially in the longer term, even when desired by the participants. More importantly, attempts at conversion cause harm," said Dr Runswick, presenting her side of the argument, last week. 

She referred to recent data documenting the damage resulting from conversion therapy, including a survey with 8000 respondents from 100 countries, in which 98% testified to having suffered damage, including permanent physical harm, suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, shame, self-hatred, and loss of faith. A UK survey conducted in 2019 found that 1 in 5 people who had been through conversion therapy later attempted suicide.

In 2018, the Conservative Government's LGBT+ Action Plan promised as a priority to end conversion therapy. Then in May this year a ban for England and Wales was announced in the Queen's Speech, which said that it would be preceded by a consultation.

It is likely that the ban will include measures to protect the medical profession, defend freedom of speech, and uphold religious freedom. "This sounds like a cop-out," said Dr Runswick. "There must be no get-out clauses. The medical profession must eradicate it from our ranks - through erasure if necessary - and conversion therapy must be made illegal, wherever it occurs – in public or private, through healthcare or religious and cultural interventions, whoever is targeted – whether a child or an adult, whether they are coerced or have consented.

"This change needs to happen now, and it needs to happen completely," she said. 

Medscape UK tried to get hold of information on speakers against the motion, to provide them with the opportunity to voice their side of the argument, but the request was refused while the recording is under investigation.

Dr Runswick feels that had the motion of the BMA debate only referred to gay conversion therapy, it would have passed with an even greater majority, but "the inclusion of trans people was difficult for a lot of doctors, demonstrating a lot of transphobia among the profession and it needs dealing with".

In 2010, the BMA representatives meeting concluded that discredited conversion therapy for homosexual people should not be funded by the NHS, and investigations were called for to find out where the NHS had followed such practice.

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