The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed a California law to stand that banned so-called “conversion therapy” for minors – “therapy” with the stated purpose of turning gay kids straight. Many arguments against the ban have argued for parents’ rights to control the treatment of their teens until they turn 18; arguments in favor of the ban have focused on the consensus among psychologists that conversion therapy doesn’t work, and can have harmful side effects.
Rarely heard in these debates is an argument for the individual civil rights of the teenagers themselves: What if they just don’t want to go?
Now, to the average person, this position raises alarm bells for being far outside the mainstream, but it’s really just the principle of individual freedom carried to its logical conclusion. My argument is that individual freedom should be the default, unless it needs to be superseded for reasons of possible harm to oneself, or harm to others. Out of context, most people would agree with this statement – but they might waver if they thought about how it applies to the rights of minors. We let parents pick what movies their 7-year-old can watch, because 7-year-olds might harm themselves if they made that decision entirely on their own; we let parents decide whether their 16-year-old can get married, because the likelihood is so high that they’ll regret it later if they make the decision without some parental guidance.
But in the case of parents who want to force their teen to get electric shocks to their junk as part of “conversion therapy” — or even just to force their teen to listen to a therapist harangue them about being gay — if the teen wants to say “fuck this” and refuse the treatment and walk out, what possibly “safety” argument could there be, for stopping the teen from making their own decision? Quite the opposite — most psychologists would agree that it’s probably safer to allow the teen to quit the treatment, than to force them through it.
At this point, some would argue that as long as parents are paying for their teen’s room and board, they ought to have the right to make these decisions (even including forcing a teen into conversion therapy), regardless of what is objectively beneficial. I doubt that many people believe this argument literally. If a husband is paying for his wife’s room and board and other expenses, does that give him the right to force her into conversion therapy – or even to snoop through her browser history? Presumably not, so if someone believes that parents have the right to do these things, that right would have to come from something other than the fact of who’s paying for what.
Some others argue that parents’ right to control their children under 18 isn’t a matter of costs and benefits (consequentialist ethics) so much as it is a matter of a principle that has to be followed regardless of the consequences (deontological ethics). Well, by definition you can’t argue with someone’s “first principles.” But I’m skeptical that people really feel this way – for one thing, if you ask someone about a restriction in minors’ freedoms that does make some logical sense, they would likely give you the real reason: “You can’t get a driver’s license at 12 because even 12-year-olds who pass the test are likely to be unsafe drivers, and there aren’t a lot of benefits to letting 12-year-olds drive.” But ask why a teen shouldn’t have the right to refuse conversion therapy, and if the person switches to saying, “Well, that’s just the way it is…” then perhaps their conviction on that point is a lot weaker.
So, if you’ve never thought about this position before, ask yourself if you really do believe that individual freedom should be the default, unless it has to be superseded for reasons of safety – and, if so, why that should not be the case for people under 18 as well. It’s easy to come up with reasons why we don’t allow 8-year-olds to play with real firearms, or allow 12-year-olds to get tattoos, but the point is that there are reasons for these rules – real reasons, in terms of self-harm and costs and benefits, not just variations of “That’s just the way it is, and we’ve always done it that way.” If you ask someone why a teen should not have the fundamental human right to refuse conversion therapy, and the best they can come up with is “That’s just the way it is,” perhaps that’s a sign that it’s an unsupportable position that society should start moving away from.