Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex-change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to 'turn' a consenting homosexual?
This was apparently (and I'm quoting the Guardian's diarist Hugh Muir here) tweeted by Conservative MEP Roger Helmer. Helmer is an avid twitterer and you can follow him at @RogerHelmerMEP. Try and put aside any knee-jerk reactions you might have against a Conservative MEP. The idea that he would be a homophobic second-rater is simply blind prejudice.
Let's get in touch with our inner Baggini and treat the comment fairly. Which means analysing the question.
That surgeon will not have had one chat with a patient and gone for the scalpel. Previous, lengthy psychological consultancies will have taken place. Surgeons cannot carry out random sex-change operations on a whim. None of the consultants carrying out such procedures, I'm sure, will have gone into the discussions with their patient with any particular outcomes in mind.
But we do know of counsellors, mainly those who approach their work from a faith perspective, who go into consultation with gay patients holding the view that re-orientation is the most desirable outcome.
So the flaw in the question, I think, is the comparison of a last-resort procedure with one which we know some people discuss as only-resort or first-resort.
It is also the case that Helmer has form. We can suspect that the comment was deliberately phrased as it was to make mischief. But whether or not that was the case we do well to answer questions as clearly and carefully as possible. If we credit mischief-makers with the best possible motives and simply answer the question we will train ourselves the better to answer genuine questions when they arise.
I would be quite happy to concede that for some patients, for whom sexuality is a grey area, therapy which helps identify a preferred orientation even if such preference is marginal might be beneficial. Note the words 'some' and 'might.'
The answer, widespread across Twitter, that Helmer is an idiot, will not do. This doesn't mean he isn't.