"We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,
we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-1945)

Whither Science?

14 October 2016

There is good reason to hold a healthy scepticism about scientific research when there are vested interests like ‘big pharma’ funding it or those conducting it have agendas. In 1994 John Bancroft, who later became director of the Kinsey Institute, said about research into sexual orientation, both heterosexual and homosexual, that it was an area “par excellence where scientific objectivity has little chance of survival.” The issue of offering therapy to reduce unwanted same-sex attraction is highly controversial. The mental health establishment says that it does not work and is dangerous. Yet the UK Council for Psychotherapy have been unable to offer me a single scientific study to substantiate their claim that there is “overwhelming evidence that undergoing such therapy is at considerable emotional and psychological cost.” (see Guidance on the Practice of Psychological Therapies that Pathologise and/or seek to Eliminate or Reduce Same Sex Attraction).  While there may indeed be some psychological cost to orientation change efforts – as there may for therapy in any context – the most frequently cited study actually recruited study participants by advertising for those reputedly harmed by therapy. But is the UKCP claim scientific?

A recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics gives a revealing insight. It considers the case of a man with a wife and children, who experiences “serious psychological suffering” from his same-sex attraction. He refuses the offer of gay-affirming therapy, “insisting that he wants to eliminate, not accept, his same-sex desires.”

Therapists today are forbidden to accede to such a request, because of the claimed ineffectiveness and danger of such therapy. But the authors consider that it is only a matter of time before undeniably safe and effective therapies will be developed.

This would present a real problem for the gay movement, they say, because “widespread use of reorientation therapy, although not intrinsically bad, could have disastrous effects on sexual minorities, potentially dooming queer communities to extinction.” This would be politically unacceptable: survival of the gay community must take precedence over individuals protecting their families. Yet it would be impossible to deny the client’s request and at the same time continue to support client autonomy – a touchstone of contemporary counselling ethics.

The paper proposes some ways round this problem. Those offering therapy to clients should be allowed a “conscience clause” under which they could refuse to offer the man his preferred therapy despite the compelling ethical case for providing it. And researchers (who develop and test new types of therapy) should, they say, “avoid testing techniques that are … likely to be safe and effective.”

This argument has very significant implications; it provides an insight into a world in which the obligation of a clinician to offer a safe and effective therapy to a man who wants to hold his family together is overridden by a speculative higher imperative to protect “queer communities”. In no other field are researchers told not to test safe and effective techniques. This is the abrogation of science as we know it. Unbiased scientific research is a sine qua non in the quest for truth.

As recently as 2012, the Association of Christian Counsellors still affirmed that “One of the most important aspects in counselling is client autonomy.” Yet in 2014 “in the interests of public safety” (An ACC statement to its members January 2014) they were persuaded to abandon that principle in cases of unwanted same-sex attraction. If the authors of the JME paper are correct, the time will come when the ‘public safety’ argument (already debatable on the scientific evidence) will be swept away and counsellors will be faced with the question: does loyalty to gay ideology justify abandoning the Hippocratic principle, First do no harm to the client?

Dermot O’Callaghan.

Dermot O’Callaghan is a retired management consultant and a member of the Church of Ireland.

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