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A Labour peer has warned against banning trans conversion therapy as he claimed many people regret changing their gender.
Lord Winston, a doctor and broadcaster known for the Child Of Our Time television series, said that outlawing the practice would risk “legislating for a piece of biology that we really don’t understand”.
Conversion therapy is used to pressure people to change their sexuality or gender identity. It might seek to turn gay people straight or stop someone changing their gender.
Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, is committed to introducing a ban on conversion therapy, although the plans have been repeatedly delayed over fears it could criminalise parents who question their child’s wish to change gender.
Speaking during a debate on a proposed law to ban conversion therapy, Lord Winston said that evidence suggested only up to a quarter of people who want to transition actually go through with it.
Several other peers raised concerns about the scope of the legislation, describing it as a “dangerous attack on civil liberties” with the potential to create a “thought crime”.
Some suggested it could put parents “on the wrong side of the law” for refusing to let their children transition, with Lord Forsyth, a former Tory former minister, claiming it “undermines the family, attacks free speech, freedom of thought and even religious belief”.
The Private Member’s Bill debated on Friday was brought forward by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Burt, and sought to make it an offence in the UK for any person to practise, or to offer to practise, conversion therapy linked to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Plans to ban therapists from pressurising gay people to be straight are entirely uncontroversial.
But extending the law to prohibit the use of conversion therapy to persuade children not to change gender is more complicated, given the possible implications for parents, doctors or teachers who might wish to question the decision.
Lady Burt’s Bill received an unopposed second reading, as is convention in the Lords, but is likely to face a strong challenge from critics at committee stage.
Lord Winston, a fertility specialist, said his own experience in reproductive medicine has shown that a number of people who have procedures to medically transition go on to change their minds later in life, so much so that they sometimes become “deeply depressed”.
“The incidence isn’t very clear. In fact, the incidence seems to change from childhood to adulthood,” he said.
“At the highest level, perhaps 25 per cent of people who really want to be transgender go on to be transgender, and actually take action, but it’s rather far less than that that actually do so.”
He added: “It’s very, very clear from my own practice in reproductive medicine, that actually a number of people who have had transgender procedures, when they are now post-menopausal stage of life, have deep regrets – so much so that they become occasionally deeply depressed.
“It doesn’t happen often and, of course, most of the time, we can see very clearly that there are many couples who are completely happy with their new gender assignment. But that’s not invariable, and we don’t understand that.
“But the basic problem, my Lords, is this: that here we are at risk of legislating for a piece of biology that we really don’t understand. We don’t understand the underlying mechanisms. We don’t even have the figures of knowing how common this really is.”
He concluded by saying it would be “quite wrong” to pass the legislation and he could not see “any serious amendments that would actually help it on its progress”.
Lady Burt said her Bill was designed to stop people trying to coerce someone into changing their behaviour, and police would be required to “demonstrate both action and motivation” when attempting to prosecute.
But Lord Forsyth said he had “never seen a more badly drafted or dangerous piece of legislation” in his 40 years in Parliament.
‘Crude piece of legislation’
“It is a dangerous, crude piece of legislation in a hugely complex and controversial area which is not suited to private legislation,” he said.
“It has all the characteristics of something written on the back of a beer mat after an unruly discussion in a pub. I very much oppose it.”
Lord Sandhurst, a fellow Tory peer, said “thought crime comes to mind”, while former minister Lord Robathan, also Conservative, dismissed the Bill as “virtue-signalling to placate a very small outraged minority who think their choice of lifestyle must never be questioned or discussed, however gently, by parents or anyone else”.
Maya Forstater, from the gender-critical group Sex Matters, said the debate showed “how poorly the idea of banning conversion therapy has been thought through”.
“The Lords carefully picked through the lack of evidence for a problem and the unintended consequences that would follow from the legislation,” she added.
Closing the debate, Lady Burt conceded the proposals were “not well drafted” and said the wording was “intentionally general”, but could be improved at committee stage.
Education minister Baroness Barran said it remains the Government’s intention to publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.