Conversion therapy: Health professionals say ethical, legal obligations could clash

The Malta Chamber of Psychologists said that while homosexuals should enjoy the same rights as everyone else in Maltese society,  the proposed Bill which will criminalize conversion therapy will ‘directly impact’ their profession. 

The Chamber said that the new legislation could pose a problem for mental health professionals because clients might want to explore a particular avenue of treatment or counselling, which could however, be interpreted as a crime by the authorities.

“On the one hand, the professional would feel compelled to follow ethical obligations and explore which path the client desires to follow. On the other hand, said professional may risk being accused of illegal and discriminatory practice should someone interpret this as an attempt to change the client’s sexual orientation. Our profession is guided by ethics not by law.”

In a position paper issued by the Caring Professionals Body, formed by the Malta Chamber of Psychologists, professionals have also complained that psychologists were only informed about the Bill towards the end of the consultation process and the Bill had already been formulated. Counsellors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists were never approached. 

The position paper, a copy of which was seen by The Malta Independent, was presented to Minister for Civil Liberties, Dr Helena Dalli and was written in collaboration between various associations of mental health professionals. 

Conversion therapy, as defined by the policy document, refers to “treatment that aims to change, repress and/or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.”

In other words, this would make it illegal for a counsellor, therapist, pastor or any form of provider of guidance to attempt to change or limit certain sexual or gender feelings a person might have. In practice, this happens when such feelings go against conventional norms. Many people will, in fact, have read or heard about organisations that seek to change homosexual people into heterosexual ones.

While criticizing the lack of consultation, the Caring Professionals Body said it welcomed every move by any administration to enshrine the right of minorities and protect their discrimination and abuse is always appropriate.

The paper condemns any sort of therapy whose application ‘is not supported by valid research’ or which seeks to convert sexual orientation. 

“We believe that people of same-sex orientation should be regarded as equal members of society with the same rights and responsibilities”, they said.

It notes that ‘the Bill is quite straightforward in ascertaining that conversion therapy is unlawful. However, there appear to be lacunae surrounding the effects it will have on professionals practicing in the field of mental health’. 

‘The bill allows for exploration with issues of sexuality and gender but clinical expertise shows it is impossible to draw a veritable line around the term exploration.’

Mental health professionals have described the bill as a double-edged sword and that it will be of a disservice both to the clinical and the client. 

The position paper concludes with the Chamber calling for the responsible committees to hear and discuss these concerns. 

The Bill, which proposes the criminalisation of gay conversion therapy, is set to be backed by the Opposition.

It proposes that people found to be carrying out such therapy are fined up to €10,000 and up to one year in prison. 

A position paper published by the Maltese Curia was welcomed with huge controversy. The government was the first to react saying that the position paper was based on ‘the wrong premise’.  The Church’s position paper says that bill to prohibit gay conversion therapy raises ‘serious ethical and legal issues.’ 

‘Contrary to what is implied by the Church, the bill is drafted on the universal principles of human rights and will not lead to any contradiction in Maltese law’, the government said in a statement.

Malta Gay rights Movement also expressed outrage at what the church said. MGRM insists that this position paper was ‘profoundly flawed’.