Jack Dobkin, Research Assistant | June 14, 2021 Blog Post

INTRODUCTION

This Pride Month, it is important to make space for joy, to celebrate, and to lift up the queer people in our lives. But just as joy is inherent in pride, so is resistance. Among the many social movements that swept the United States in the 1960s, two of the most prominent were queer liberation and second-wave feminism. Thanks to the stalwart advocacy of activists in the face of social disfavor and state violence, both movements secured some hard-fought wins. After years of organizing and demonstrating, two meaningful victories were won in 1973—for queer people, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) removed homosexuality from the classification of mental disorder and, for second-wave feminism, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade, protecting the right to have an abortion.

In response to these and other events that challenged how we saw and understood gender and sexuality, the religious right mobilized. This mobilization could be seen in not only electoral politics but also two reactionary movements that disguised their actions as care, while actually causing great harm—anti-abortion centers (AACs) and anti-LGBTQIA+ “conversion therapy.” It was at this time that anti-abortion centers began in an attempt to limit access to abortion, and although “conversion therapy” became more socially stigmatized after the DSM’s reversal, the religious right coalesced around their anti-LGBTQIA+ views with a stronger organizational force than ever before, including continued support for the increasingly disapproved “conversion therapy.” Of course, the foundational throughline connecting the state, the religious right, AACs, and “conversion therapy” is the insidious desire to uphold and enforce a cisheteronormative and patriarchal society.

As such, during Pride Month, it is our duty to carry on the necessary tradition of resisting anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments, cultures, and policies. Given their similar—and at times intersecting—harmful efforts, it can be useful to examine the practices, methods, and backers of AACs and “conversion therapy” together. In this light, this blog post looks at how both AACs and “conversion therapy” peddle junk science and deception, are often inherently religious operations, perpetrate abuse, and receive similar organizational and institutional support.

SPREADING JUNK SCIENCE

AACs and “conversion therapy” both peddle false, inaccurate, and widely discredited junk science and/or practices to achieve their desired outcomes.

Common tropes used by AACs rely on scare tactics, which falsely claim that abortion care is associated with adverse health outcomes. In reality, study after study has confirmed that all methods of abortion are incredibly safe and do not pose risks to physical or mental health, and many people report feeling better off in life and a sense of relief after having an abortion. Completely ignoring this evidence, AACs deceive pregnant people by claiming that the procedure carries a high risk for future fertility issues; that abortion leads to unfounded mental health diagnoses, such as “post-abortion syndrome” (something so made-up that even Ronald Reagan’s anti-abortion surgeon general refused to issue a report on what he referred to as “minuscule from a public-health perspective”); and the widely used and widely discredited claim that abortion leads to breast cancer.

Like AACs, “conversion therapy” also draws on material that has been widely debunked by medical professionals. At the root of this coercive and abusive practice is the false claim that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expressions outside of cisheteronormative expectations can be forcibly altered.

In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report stating that “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed,” and in 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) “resolved … that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.” In addition to the APA, at least 16 professional medical associations have criticized “conversion therapy,” and it is banned in 20 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. as of June 2021. Several former proponents of “conversion therapy,” such as John Paulk, Robert Spitzer, and Exodus International, have even recanted their own homophobic and transphobic efforts, noting their studies’ known failings and the harms that their lies helped perpetuate.

DEALING IN DECEPTION

AACs use many tactics to deceive people to get them in their doors: they are often strategically located near abortion providers, frequently use lookalike advertising, and manipulate technology to confuse those seeking services.

Some AACs use strategic names and slogans similar to those used by abortion providers, such as “Plan Your Parenthood,” and others have even used well-recognized hot pink and white branding, attempting to confuse people into thinking they are walking into a Planned Parenthood. Many AACs also employ similar language to abortion providers on their websites and in their advertising materials, claiming to offer “comprehensive pregnancy care,” even though most AACs are not licensed medical clinics and do not offer medical services. Quite insidiously, anti-abortion networks have manipulated search engine optimization to redirect people seeking information on abortions toward AACs. When someone seeking pregnancy care is looking for trustworthy and accredited advice, the deception of AACs coerce them into feeling guilt and shame. *

Given that “conversion therapy” relies wholly on junk science, it follows that anyone charging money for this deception should be found guilty of committing consumer fraud. In 2015, the New Jersey Superior Court found this to be true in the landmark case Ferguson v. JONAH, which unanimously determined “conversion therapy” to constitute consumer fraud. The court found that JONAH knowingly deceived people into paying for the abusive and discredited practice that the organization marketed as “effective” and “successful” in denying and changing people’s sexual orientations. While innocent queer people were subject to disgraceful, traumatizing, and discredited practices, the defendants profited off their pain.

Of note, the defendants in Ferguson v. JONAH tried to use NIFLA v. Becerra's harmful ruling as a basis for their arguments. NIFLA v. Becerra ruled that under the first amendment, AACs could not be compelled to inform people about state-sponsored abortion services or to notify people of clinics’ unlicensed status where applicable. The defendants in Ferguson v. JONAH seized on this ruling and argued that if AACs were shielded from these regulations aimed at increasing transparency, then “conversion therapy” should also be afforded the same protections. This intersection highlights the shared shoddy foundations of the entire operations of AACs and “conversion therapy.”

PROMOTING RELIGIOUS IDEOLOGY

Rather than being driven by true care or compassion for queer people and pregnant people, “conversion therapy” proponents and AACs are driven by the desire to impose their views on others, and they are often the grassroots manifestation of national right-wing and fundamentalist religious movements.

The overwhelming majority of AACs in the United States are part of two massive evangelical Christian AAC networks: Care Net, which provides “Christ-centered support” and makes affiliates and volunteers agree to a statement of faith, and Heartbeat International, whose website notes the organization’s desire to help “God’s people” and is full of Christian Bible verses. It has been documented that many AACs push religious propaganda onto pregnant people and even mandate religiously inflected counseling as a prerequisite to receiving the services or assistance they are seeking. Given that many AAC networks, including these two, receive federal funding via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, this blurring of the separation of church and state is particularly concerning. This is not care; it is taxpayer-funded evangelism.

“Conversion therapy” is no different. It has been found that 81 percent of “conversion therapy” survivors in the United States were subjected to the practice by a religious leader. Christian churches, organizations, and fundamentalists have certainly led this cause in the United States. As mentioned, in response to the progress won by queer movements in the 1960s and 1970s, Christian organizations, pastors, and individuals ramped up “conversion therapy” efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a documented history of the institutional use of the practice through Brigham Young University, which the church owns and operates. Unfortunately, however, many fundamentalist faith traditions have formal and informal ties to “conversion therapy” efforts, as was on display in the already mentioned 2015 Ferguson v. JONAH landmark court ruling on fraud—JONAH stands for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality.

ABUSING INNOCENT PEOPLE

This weaponizing of religion and/or religious beliefs against queer people and pregnant people is just one example of how “conversion therapy” and AACs abuse people. Given the personal and socially stigmatized natures of the topics at hand—sexuality and gender and terminating a pregnancy—“conversion therapy” proponents and AACs emotionally abuse people by manipulating not only religion but also some people’s internalized feelings of shame or guilt.*

In addition to this emotional abuse, physical abuse has been documented in “conversion therapy.” When commercialized “conversion therapy” took hold in the United States in the early 20th century, intense and disturbing physical tactics were employed, including nausea-inducing drugs, electric shocks, and ice pick lobotomies. Despite the abandonment of these specific forms of trauma and torture, this legacy of physical abuse has lasted for decades, such as JONAH’s forced stripping and violent role play.

Because AACs are interested in discouraging abortion rather than encouraging comprehensive pregnancy care, their deceptive practices are designed to intentionally delay abortions. This can be harmful because while abortion is incredibly safe—and at any point is always safer than giving birth—abortion has the lowest risk for complications when carried out earlier. These tactical delays can push people past legal gestational limits for abortion in their state, and AACs know this. By intentionally delaying abortion seekers past those gestational limits, AACs force them to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, which has been found to lead to emotional, financial, and physical harm.

FUNDING AND BACKING

It’s not just the practices and tactics that merit a comparison between AACs and “conversion therapy.” Unsurprisingly, these efforts are underwritten and shopped around by the same groups and individuals on the religious right.

The designated hate group Family Research Council (FRC), for example, has played an important role in advocating for both “conversion therapy” and AACs nationwide. FRC President Tony Perkins proposed endorsing “conversion therapy” as an official part of the Republican Party’s 2016 platform. In 2018, noted anti-LGBTQIA+ FRC Senior Policy Fellow Peter Sprigg published an issue analysis that pushed discredited junk science in support of “conversion therapy.” Exposing their true intentions for AACs, FRC and Perkins have publicly supported what they refer to as “pro-life pregnancy resource centers.” In both Maryland and California, FRC supported efforts to shield AACs from any accountability around their deceptive false advertising.

On the state level, Equity Forward recently received public records of communications between the right-wing Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) and anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-abortion State Senator Nancy Barto. These productions show how in February 2021 alone, CAP was pushing several anti-abortion bills while simultaneously pushing a preemptive prohibition on banning “conversion therapy” in the state. A forthcoming Equity Forward report will examine this research in more detail.

The religious right are not the only people who support these harmful practices, however. Through taxpayer dollars, everyday Americans also fund these programs—though they might not know it!

Because Medicaid billing codes do not require therapy types to be specified, “conversion therapy” could technically be covered under mental health billing codes. Legislation was introduced to ban Medicaid funds for “conversion therapy,” but it died in the House in 2019. And although passing this would be important, protections under this law and most state bans only concern health care providers, so these do nothing to hold accountable “conversion therapy” performed by religious leaders—who perform the vast majority of “conversion therapy.”

Meanwhile, AACs receive taxpayer dollars even more brazenly. Several states include money for Alternative to Abortion (A2A) programs that fund AACs in their budgets, and some of these states siphon off money from the federal TANF program intended for direct aid to low-income families. This model was championed by the anti-abortion network Real Alternatives. Equity Forward recently published a detailed report investigating the use of these federal TANF dollars to fund A2A programs across the country.

CONCLUSION

Interestingly, despite their similarities, AACs and “conversion therapy” have recently experienced different trajectories in the United States. On the one hand, AACs have seen exponential growth as of late, with many receiving taxpayer dollars from state budgets, federal programs, and even the COVID relief bill! Texas’s proposed $100 million budget for that state’s A2A program punctuates this concerning growth.

On the other hand, “conversion therapy”—while still plaguing queer folks around the country—seems to be on the decline. Many people and organizations who once led or supported the practice have softened or reversed their stances in recent years, and “conversion therapy” bans have been implemented in states as conservative as Utah, even with tacit (albeit limited and conditional) backing by the LDS Church.

It should be emphasized that anti-abortion centers and “conversion therapy” remain distinct practices, each with its own characteristics, proponents, and targets. But, as laid out here, understanding the clear overlap between the tactics these efforts employ and the national movements they are part of is crucial for holding these purveyors of harm accountable.

* This refers to how society often stigmatizes and shames abortion and how individuals can and do internalize this shame, which AACs manipulate and worsen. Importantly, abortion is a procedure that for many people is not a hard decision and can bring relief and happiness rather than guilt or shame. “Conversion therapy,” however, is almost universally condemned by its survivors.

Jack Dobkin is a research assistant at Equity Forward. He is a passionate advocate for reproductive justice and human rights, with a particular interest in queer communities. Before joining Equity Forward, Jack worked toward advancing LGBTQIA+ rights in the South at the Human Rights Campaign, and worked as an organizer for both national and municipal campaigns. Jack holds a bachelor’s degree in international politics from Georgetown University.