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Trial begins in challenge of Arkansas ban on health care for transgender youth

Federal courthouse
Michael Hibblen
The federal courthouse in Little Rock as seen on April 26, 2019. A lawsuit is challenging a law passed by the legislature banning gender-affirming health care for transgender minors.

Arkansas’ currently blocked ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors will go on trial in federal court Monday in Little Rock.

Several transgender minors, their parents and two doctors who provide gender-affirming care challenged the 2021 law in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. U.S. District Judge James Moody will hear the case, and the trial is expected to last all week.

Moody placed an injunction on Act 626 in July 2021 that was upheld in August by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Similar laws restricting access to gender-affirming care in three other states — Alabama, Arizona and Texas — also are on hold after judges blocked enforcemen.

Act 626, or the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, was the first of its kind in the U.S. The law banned physicians from providing “gender transition” treatments, like puberty blockers and sex reassignment surgeries to minors.

Medical groups, including the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, lobbied against the law, saying that the outlawed treatments are safe and that medical decisions should remain in the hands of doctors and their patients.

The same treatments are sometimes used for cisgender youth, but the law does not address this, and singles out transgender youth, said Sarah Everett, an attorney with the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs.

“It’s not about protecting kids,” Everett said. “It’s about erasing transgender people and scoring political points at their expense.”

Both Moody and the 8th Circuit panel said the law would cause irreparable harm to transgender minors.

Republican state lawmakers have argued that it is the state’s responsibility to regulate medical care and that the ban would protect vulnerable children from being subjected to irreversible, “experimental” treatments.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and several members of the Arkansas State Medical Board are defendants in the case.

“The SAFE Act protects children from life-altering, permanent decisions that they may desire to make as an underage child but could regret as an adult,” Rutledge said in an emailed statement Friday. “No law in Arkansas prevents someone from making these decisions as an adult.”

She added that the law does not prevent transgender minors from receiving mental health care, including psychiatric medication.

Last weekend, Rutledge appeared on the Apple+ interview show, “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” during which the comedian challenged many of the attorney general’s assertions about gender-affirming care.

Everett said the idea that transgender people could later regret transitioning is false. She also said she has not seen Rutledge or anyone else who supports the SAFE Act “argue with actual trans people” who can speak to their need for gender-affirming care.

“They have to ignore what trans people are telling them because they have no response,” Everett said.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the legal landscape published in June noted that in addition to the four that have adopted similar bans on gender-affirming care for youth, 15 others were considering 25 pieces of legislation with similar aims.

“At the same time, other states have adopted broad nondiscrimination health protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” the Kaiser report said. “Separately, the Biden administration, which has been working to eliminate barriers and expand access to health care for LGBTQ+ people more generally, has come out against restrictive state policies.”

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.
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