Archive, Letters

On Conversion Therapy – Again

The Norwegian Government has proposed a new law to ban ‘conversion therapy’. Here follows an unofficial English translation of the response submitted by Norway’s Council of Catholic Bishops on 8 October 2022.

1. Introduction 

1.1 About Norway’s Council of Catholic Bishops

Norway’s Council of Catholic Bishops wishes to pronounce itself on the new proposal made by the Department for Culture and Equality to criminalise ‘conversion therapy’. The council represents the Catholic Church in Norway. Its members are Bernt Eidsvig, Bishop of Oslo, Berislav Grgić, bishop of Tromsø, and Erik Varden, bishop of Trondheim.

1.2 History 

Norway’s Council of Catholic Bishops addressed this issue already last year, in its response to the law proposal made by Mrs Solberg’s government. We wish to summarise briefly what we wrote then, referring to our text submitted on 13 October 2021 for full argumentation.

1. The Catholic Church disapproves of any manipulation of conscience. We recognised the Department’s good intention, but concluded that the law proposal rested on an uncertain foundation, uncertain principles.

2. The law proposal positioned itself a priori with regard to the problem of identity. It traced a one-way lane in the area of gender dysphoria, as if the one responsible ‘conversion therapy’ were to point towards gender correction treatment. We consider that the state thereby assumes competence that does not rightfully belong to it.

3. We remarked that the law proposal restricted freedom. The right to grow in freedom, to be enlightened over time in the use of freedom, notably in questions of morals and religion, is inseparable from human dignity. We maintained that this right must be acknowledged and safeguarded by the state.   

4. We observed that biological gender is, for the overwhelming majority of human beings, a sure foundation for the formation of identity. We acknowledged that some experience painful identity conflict. Society must embrace such persons with openness and respect.

5. We wholeheartedly support the Department’s intention to protect children and youngsters. We pointed out, however, that a degree of identity conflict is well-nigh inevitable in people’s lives, especially during adolescence. Such conflict, even when it is painfully bewildering, enables maturing. Maturing is an organic process that may require perseverance in bewilderment, without rushed interventions. A human being matures by finding his or her place, subjectively, among objective norms; sometimes, perhaps, over against norms. Yet experienced identity conflict does not cease through the simple removal of norms.

1.3 Summary of the Council’s view of this year’s law proposal 

Mr Støre’s government sharpens the proposal made by Mrs Solberg’s government. The notion of ‘proportionality’, important in 2021, has been removed; no distinction is made, now, between minors and adults. Grave defects in the proposal are these: 

  • The proposal’s lack of empirical grounding and its vague terminology.
  • The proposal’s circumscription of citizens’ rights to free decision-making.
  • The proposal’s tendentious anthropology.
  • The proposal’s restriction of religious freedom.

We shall expound our reasons for concern. We consider that the proposal falls on its unreasonableness and ask that it be, in its present form, abandoned.

2. Lack of empirical grounding and vague terminology

1. The term ‘conversion therapy’. It is ascertained in 7.4.4.1 that ‘we do not have certain knowledge of the way in which conversion therapy works in Norway’. This is an astounding admission in a text asking that ‘conversion therapy’ be punishable with up to six years’ imprisonment. The term evokes negative associations while being too vague for employment in punitive legislation. The law proposal comes across as a wrestling match with a shadow. On the basis of the Department’s preconceived notion of identity development and sexual orientation, ‘therapy’ pointing in a different direction is projected. To propose a law that envisages strict sentencing for behaviour not clearly defined is irresponsible.

2. The term ‘method’. In a stab at precision, punishable ‘therapy’ is referred to ‘methods whose purpose it is to make another alter, deny, or suppress his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, clearly prone to cause individuals psychological harm’ (7.4.4.2). Reference is made to ‘methods like […] cognitive behavioural therapy, narrative therapy, Gestalt therapy, psychodrama, different kinds of trauma treatment, body therapy, hypnosis and so on, or anything that resembles techniques of this kind’ (7.4.4.2). The extension of categories is so generous that hardly any form of therapy is excluded. ‘When it comes to considering whether utterances of opinion is to be considered a method, the determining factor will be whether the utterances of opinion are employed as a deliberate means’ (7.4.4.2). We ask: can an utterance which is not deliberate be considered an utterance of opinion? Persistent vagueness of this kind creates an unsatisfactory foundation for a legal proposal, especially considering its purpose, which is to define punishable actions.

3. Confusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. ‘The Department suggests […] that punitive regulation should be made in view of sexual orientation and gender identity’ (7.4.4.6). ‘Sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ are presented as two sides of the same coin. The terms point to different realities, however: it is one thing to experience same-sex attraction; it is another to experience estrangement in one’s own body. Different medical, pastoral, and juridical approaches are called for. Unpreparedness to undertake such categorisation, to discuss differences and similarities between the categories, reveal a fundamental weakness in the proposal. A further weakness is the repeated use made, without definition, of the metaphor ‘skeiv’ [‘bent’].

4. A lack of contextualisation. Nr 7.4.4.6 affirms that Norwegian research shows ‘that trans persons are more exposed than others to mental-health suffering’. The point is important. The Department deduces: ‘it is utterly essential that the law likewise protects against conversion therapy directed at individuals’ gender identity’ (ibid). The deduction is inadequate.  It is presumed that heightened exposure to psychological pain is a consequence of gender dysphoria; it is not recognised that felt gender dysphoria might be a symptom of psychological pain of different origin. In cases of comorbidity, the risk is great that gender correction treatment appears as a panacea. We see a growing mass of evidence reporting mistreatment on this basis, causing terrible harm. It is irresponsible that such material is not discussed. The Department wishes to combat any approach that does not affirm individuals’ subjective perception of reality. We are unaware of such lack of nuance in governmental attitudes in any other field. We shall return to this topic below, in Point 6.

3. Circumscription of Citizens’ Rights to Free Decision-Making

‘The Department stresses that the use of methods whose purpose is to make another alter, deny, or suppress his or her sexual orientation or gender identity will be punishable irrespective of whether there has been consent to the employment of such methods, clearly prone to cause individuals psychological harm‘ (7.1). The statement expresses a tendency that runs through the text: the state’s arrogation to itself of a right to exercise tutelage. Who, then, is entitled to define criteria for the just exercise of freedom? How will psychological ‘harm’ be defined over against psychological ‘gain’ if individuals are declared unfit to set boundaries in what concerns themselves? Why should a person not be entitled, for instance, to freely orient his or her sexuality based on the hypothesis that such orientation is not necessarily deterministic but can be subject to choices informed by a religious view or worldview freely assumed and well thought-through? The Department wishes to abolish, by law, the right to make such choices and to seek help in the process.

In legal terms, it is dubious practice to relate punishment to the risk of unclearly indicated harm, not to harm caused in fact. Legislation should at least be restricted to cases in which psychological harm as a result of ‘methods’ is clearly in evidence.

‘The Department proposes that consent cannot be a determining element in the description of [criminal] action; it further proposes not to distinguish between children and adults’ (7.3.4.1). The proposal is made on the grounds that ‘Consent as a legal condition would be […] too vague in this context and would make it hard to implement legislation’ (7.3.4.3). The implementation of legislation is considered to prevail over adult consent.

If this law is adopted, it will represent a case of disquieting precedence. It will legitimate totalitarian intervention on the part of the state in citizens’ forming of their own lives. It will criminalise communication between consenting adults. It will impose a terrible responsibility on children to define their own identity; at the same time it will treat adults like children. What is at stake is a proposal that goes far beyond the topic in question. What is at stake is the relationship between the state and its citizens.  

4. Tendentious Anthropology

What is the purpose behind this proposal? ‘The Department wishes, by means of this legislation, to frame actions connoting active meddling with another person’s development and experience of identity related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and to protect persons against potentially harmful actions’ (7.4.4.1). We fully support the wish to protect sound autonomy. At the same time we point out how problematic it is to assume that a person’s ‘experience of identity’ is, at the end of the day, the sole factor to define that person’s integration into society. ‘No man’, wrote the poet John Donne, ‘is an island’. The Department appears to hold the opposite view.

By being abstracted from belonging (belonging in a culture, in a religion, in a gender, in one’s own body), the individual is surrendered to itself on the basis of self-defined psycho-sexual criteria. The surrender reflects the mentality of our time —our wish to create ourselves. It is presumed that there is no such thing as meaningfully mediating institutions. Cultural experience, meanwhile, shows that the self-understanding of women and men tends to develop precisely through community. Hardly any other epoch has had a view of human nature as atomised as ours. This view is upheld in full awareness that loneliness is a growing societal ill, especially among the young. The law proposal shows a lack of historical consciousness. As a society, driven by the state, we are asked to capitulate before an understanding of human nature that will turn out to be short-lived, ephemeral.

We accept that a law proposal is not a treatise of philosophy. Still, we consider that the legislator is obliged, in an area such as this, to entertain a reasoned understanding of human nature. We cannot see that this is the case. We further consider that the legislator cannot brandish the menace of imprisonment with regard to citizens who hold diverging views on identity and sexuality.

To surrender individuals to the ‘experience’ of who they are in order, next, to affirm their subjective experience by means of objective intervention, is risky. We wish to highlight an Orwellian passage in 7.4.4.2. We read, here, that ‘the prohibition does not intend to affect health personnel carrying out gender-affirming treatment.’ No,

‘gender-affirming treatment will not fall under the description of [criminal] action, since such treatment is carried out to confirm a person’s experienced gender identity. In the same way, situations in which a person seeks healthcare in order to detransition, after receiving gender correction treatment, to the gender given that individual at birth, will not be affected by the description of [criminal] action.’

It is, then, to be illegal to accompany an integrity-seeking human being wishing to reconcile experienced and biological gender; while it is considered ‘affirming’, and so acceptable, to help this human being change his or her bodily identity on the basis of subjective intuition, even when intervention turns out to have been a mistake. Such disproportion would be comical, had it not pointed towards terrible fragility. Gender change is referred to as if it were a matter merely of a change of outfit, biological gender is regarded as if it were a bureaucratic detail. No reference is made to the fatal consequences gender change may have. Therefore the proposal appears, notwithstanding its repeated use of words such as ‘protect’, ‘help, and ‘support’, peculiarly technocratic and inhuman.

5. Religious Freedom Compromised

The Department writes that it ‘does not intend to intervene in believers’ communication with higher powers’ (7.4.4.2). We salute its humility. But we are worried by the fact that it, despite assurances of respect for religious freedom, explicitly proposes to restrict such freedom.

The Department bases itself on [a judgement documented in] Rt. 1984 p. 1359 on p. 1364: ‘Neither the Constitution’s § 100 on the freedom of the press, the Constitution’s § 2 on religious freedom or the Human Rights Conventions are an obstacle to the giving, by law, of rules to safeguard against grievous injury to exposed minority groups, and the application of such rules also to religious preaching.’

What is envisaged in the proposal is an application much more widespread than that presupposed in the judgement’s reference to ‘grievous injury’. Prayer, intercession, ‘or other religious practice’ are now to become potentially punishable offences. So will ‘statements consisting of quotations, near-quotations, or expositions of Scriptures or religious teaching, and, for that matter, utterances of opinion closely related to religious utterances’ (7.4.4.2).

A person who would fashion his or her life — one, for example, who wishes to envisage his or her sexual orientation prospectively — in accordance with a freely chosen view of the world and of religion is declared incompetent for consent: ‘The Department holds that individuals who, against a background of religious conviction, wish to receive conversion therapy, must accept a curtailment of this right, sprung from a concern to protect individuals who feel they are subject to pressure to alter or deny their sexual orientation or gender identity, and out of consideration for the bent considered as a community’ (5.1.6.2). The right to self-determination is subjected to loyalty with regard to a collective body indicated by the Department.

The Department calls this ‘a minor infringement of religious freedom’ (7.4.4.2). We are not in agreement. A dam is opened. The state assumes the right to censure texts believers freely recognise as revelation and binding teaching. The state would also censure practice. In this respect, specific mention is made of exorcism, which the proposal wishes to forbid as a ‘method’ (7.4.4.2). The reference here appears to be derived from popular cinema, not from the rigorously limited, strictly theologically defined practice which the Catholic Church, for instance, understands under the term ‘exorcism’. The fact that a Department of state so cavalierly pronounces on and forbids practice it does not have competence to understand gives further evidence of the text’s authoritarian tendency.

6. Final remarks

We write our response as bishops. It is a bishop’s task to expound Christian faith on the basis of the teaching of the Church; it is likewise his task to exercise pastoral care. We daily encounter truth-seeking, often vulnerable people at great depth. This is our privilege. Such encounters help us not to form a simplified view of people’s lives, sufferings, hopes, and possibilities. We wish to conclude our response by anchoring in real life one of the key issue under discussion here.

Britain’s NHS was this summer required to close a clinic in Tavistock that had been a centre for gender correction treatment. The clinic attracted public attention in 2018. The psychiatrist David Hill then blew the whistle on harmful practice. Hill estimates that about a third of his colleagues were concerned. They found that children routinely turned up at the clinic reciting rehearsed scripts, accompanied by parents convinced that gender correction treatment was needed to correct abnormal comportment; that growing demand limited psycho-social preparatory work; that correction of felt dysphoria was increasingly carried out as routine; that ideologically conditioned counsellors lacked requisite expertise. The most worrying fact was that Hill’s concern, and that of his colleagues, was silenced. It had become suspect and illegitimate to question gender correction treatment.

David Hill has since asked probing questions about society’s approach to gender dysphoria. Hill, who incidentally is not a Christian, indicates four chief concerns: 

  • While rare cases of felt dysphoria twenty years ago chiefly concerned boys who thought themselves girls, we see, after a time of even distribution, a sharp rise of girls thinking they are boys. ‘We do not know’, says Hill, ‘why this is happening.’
  • Hill thinks too much emphasis is placed on gender and not enough on sexuality. There is a risk that one seeks a clinical solution to a problem lodged in issues of orientation — with increased psychological suffering ensuing.
  • Young people who experience gender dysphoria often display signs of anorexia, autism and history of trauma. Hill has found depression ascribed to dysphoria, without adequate reason. He asks: ‘Why don’t we try to treat that first?’
  • Hill is concerned that bans on ‘conversion therapy’ can become a Trojan horse for trans activists who will use it to put pressure on any clinician who does not immediately affirm a young person’s statement about their identity.

Among those who have taken the Tavistock clinic to court is Keira Bell. Born a woman in 1998, she turned to the clinic when she was about fifteen years of age. She was determined to become a boy, certain that that was how she would find herself. When treatment was far advanced, she found she had made a mistake:

‘The consequences of what happened to me have been profound: possible infertility, loss of my breasts and inability to breastfeed, atrophied genitals, a permanently changed voice, facial hair. When I was seen at the Tavistock clinic, I had so many issues that it was comforting to think I really had only one that needed solving: I was a male in a female body. But it was the job of the professionals to consider all my co-morbidities, not just to affirm my naïve hope that everything could be solved with hormones a and surgery.’

By its current law proposal, Mr Støre’s government would prepare the ground for the extension of such experience, making it illegal to assist. The proposal represents a massive disservice to vulnerable youngsters. We therefore ask that it be not, as it stands, presented to Parliament.

+Bernt I. Eidsvig
+Berislav Grgić
+Erik Varden

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