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Arkansas Governor Vetoes Bill that Would Bar Doctors from Treating Transgender Youth

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The state of Arkansas was on the verge of passing a sweeping bill that would prohibit doctors and physicians from treating transgender youth with hormone treatments, puberty blockers, or surgery. The State Legislature passed the bill before sending it over to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for final approval. 

Nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle expected Hutchinson to sign the bill into law, but he surprised everyone by vetoing it instead.

The debate has put a spotlight on trans lives in the U.S. and how the healthcare industry treats children looking to transition.

Cracking Down on Transgender Youth

When Gov. Hutchinson announced that he would veto the bill, he said that it was a product of the country’s culture wars. It’s true that many Republican states have introduced bills that specifically target transgender individuals.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are currently 174 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in state legislatures across the country. Of those, 95 directly target transgender people.

Gov. Hutchinson recently signed Senate Bill 354 into law, which bans transgender women and girls from participating in sports (including extracurricular and school sports) consistent with their gender identity. That means that transgender girls and women can’t play sports with cisgender women.

House Bill 1570 has been described as one of the most restrictive anti-LGBQT+ pieces of legislation in history. The bill would have banned transgender youth under the age of 18 from receiving puberty-suppressing drugs and cross-sex hormones. It would have banned gender-affirming doctors and providers from prescribing these medications or performing transformative surgery on transgender youth.

A Change of Heart

During yesterday’s press conference, Gov. Hutchinson discussed his reasons for vetoing the bill.

“If House Bill 1570 becomes law, then we are creating new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people,” the governor said.

He said that he changed his mind after meeting with parents of transgender youth, gender-affirming providers, and kids experiencing gender dysphoria to learn more about what it’s like to go through this experience at such a young age.

“While they are a minority, they deserve a guiding hand of their parents and of the healthcare professionals that their family has chosen,” Gov. Hutchinson added. “While in some instances, the state must act to protect life, the state should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical human and ethical issue.”

Proponents of the bill have referred to gender reassignment surgery as genital mutilation. But, as Hutchinson pointed out, gender reassignment surgery isn’t performed on anyone under the age of 18 in Arkansas. If that were the case, Hutchinson said he would have signed the bill into law.

Instead, the governor said that signing the bill would do serious harm to the several hundred transgender youth living across the state. He said he’s learned that trans teens receive psychosocial medical support and hormone therapy to help them progress through their transition. He also added that if the bill passed, it would have penalized providers for prescribing medications or caring for transgender youth, which would’ve set a dangerous precedent for other states looking to enact similar legislation.

Not everyone agrees.

Charisse Dean with the Family Council is a strong proponent of the bill. “We believe it’s important to have a bill like this in place because we need certain protections for children,” she said, adding that she thinks the bill would protect youth from life-changing procedures until their brains are fully developed.

However, providers have been rallying against the bill in droves. Several prominent doctors and gender-affirming physicians were at the state capitol over the weekend to vocalize their frustration with the bill. They say it would force providers to choose between breaking the law and providing “evidence-based guidance and interventions for transgender patients,” as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other mainstream medical groups.

Dr. Gary Wheeler, President of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in response to the bill:

“Parents of transgender youth, like most parents, simply want to do what is best for their child—and that includes working with physicians and other members of the health care team to ensure that their child has access to a continuum of necessary, evidence-based medical care. Arkansas pediatricians have serious concerns about the impact HB1570 could have on Arkansas youth, their families, and the pediatricians and other providers who care for them.”

What Happens Next?

Gov. Hutchinson’s veto might not be enough to sink the bill.

The state legislature can override the veto with a simple majority vote. Considering Republicans are in control of both chambers in the state, it looks as if the bill will eventually become law.

However, the ACLU has already said it plans to fight the law in court.

Transgender youth and adults living in the state say they feel as if the bill puts a target on their backs. Families and guardians with transgender youth say they might have to move if the bill becomes law.

Depending on whether and how the bill goes into effect, we may see similar bills moving through state legislatures all over the country.

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