The equivocations of the Royal College of General Practitioners

The Royal College of General Practitioners has failed to take responsibility for protecting academic freedom. 

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) is the professional membership body for GPs in the UK. It aims to “foster and maintain the highest possible standards in general medical practice”. It is, in its own words, “an academic organisation”. 

The RCGP rents out its headquarters in London as a venue for events. The Clinical Advisory Network on Sex and Gender (CAN-SG) had arranged with the RCGP to hold a conference at the headquarters. CAN-SG is a group of doctors and psychiatrists, which campaigns, in its words, for “clearer dialogue, better data collection, rigorous science and improved treatment options for gender dysphoria”. CAN-SG lists its commitments on its website. Its conference is entitled “First do no harm, critical perspectives on sex and gender in healthcare”. Speakers consist primarily of GPs with extensive clinical experience in the areas of gender or mental health and academics, among them Professor Riittakerttu Kaltiala, head of a national paediatric gender clinic in Finland, and Sonia Appleby, who was the lead for Safeguarding Children at the NHS Tavistock and Portman Foundation Trust. 

In the past week, a large number of people have campaigned on X (formerly Twitter) for the RCGP to cancel the conference. Demands for the cancellation of the conference have tended to be based on the following three claims: 

  • That Stella O’Malley, one of the speakers at the conference, advocates conversion therapy for trans people.  
  • That some of the speakers at the conference are transphobic. 
  • That because some of the speakers are transphobic, if RCGP does not cancel the conference, trans people will lose trust in GPs. 

The first claim is false. Conversion therapy refers to any style of therapy which “attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity, or seeks to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity” (UK Council for Psychotherapy). O’Malley has repeatedly stated that she regards such styles of therapy as “unethical” and “abhorrent”. O’Malley advocates “exploratory therapy”, a kind of therapy which aims to help a client explore their feelings in a way that is “open, curious, and non-directive“. The second claim is also – to the knowledge of CAF – false, and appears to be based on the fact that a number of the speakers, for instance, Dr Az Hakeem, are gender critical. That is, they believe that sex is biological and immutable, and may play a significant or even total role in determining whether a person is a man or a woman. In the absence of the second claim, the third claim collapses. 

The RCGP has responded to the demands by issuing a statement. In it, it 

  • states that the conference can go ahead, citing the risk of legal action for breaching the Equality Act which cancelling the event would create. 
  • confirms its commitment to “the principles of free speech, academic freedom, and evidence-based debate”. However, this is followed immediately by an assertion that “we have had no involvement with the organisation of this conference and have not endorsed its content”. Here, the RCGP make clear that they are not commenting on whether their commitment to “free speech, academic freedom and evidence based medicine” extends to the conference organised by CAN-SG. 
  • states that the association of the RCGP with the conference “has called the College’s commitment to inclusion and to the care of our LGBTQ+ members and patients into question”. This implies that hosting the conference is somehow counter to the inclusion and care of LGBTQ+ individuals. The effect is for the RCGP to lend its authority to baseless accusations on X of transphobia and advocacy of conversion therapy. 

The RCGP’s statement is cowardly and evasive. It wipes its hands of responsibility for the conference, suggesting that its only reason for permitting it to go ahead is risk of a lawsuit. This is a shocking abdication. If the RCGP is not willing even to state that its commitment to “academic freedom” extends to allowing gender critical academics and doctors to hold conferences, it is highly unlikely that its commitment does actually extend this far.  

Both the abdication of responsibility, and the apparent lack of commitment to academic freedom, are a disgrace to the RCGP.