The deadline for when most laws passed during the 2021 Arkansas Legislative session officially go into effect is fewer than 15 days away. However, some bills are facing legal challenges that could strike them down before become law.
The ACLU of Arkansas filed two lawsuits against two bills passed by the Arkansas legislature this past session. Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas says these two bills, one a ban on the practice of abortion with few medical exceptions and the other bill that blocks Arkansas transgender youth from accessing transition related care, threaten the health of Arkansans. According to Dickson, a hearing on the lawsuit concerning transgender healthcare is scheduled for next week, while a decision on the abortion ban bill could come at any time.
KUAR News spoke with Holly Dickson, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas, about the legislative session and the ACLU’s response to it. Below is a transcript of the conversation that aired on KUAR.
KUAR: I first want to talk about the 2021 Arkansas General Session kind of as a whole. So, how do you feel that the session went, what are some of your takeaways?
Dickson: "Well, the session was incredibly brutal for any civil right or civil liberty. From free speech, to voting rights, to equality, racial justice, reproductive liberty, Arkansans’ privacy; you name it and it was under attack this legislative session. Not all of those bills passed, of course, but there were that did pass that were incredibly harmful."
KUAR: We’re in this, kind of, in-between period where unless a bill passed with an emergency clause, it won’t go into effect until 90 days after that session adjourns. So we’re in that period, so…how has the ACLU used this time?
Dickson: "Well, obviously we filed two cases right away for two laws that threaten Arkansans’ health. You know, the laws in and of themselves created a public healthcare crisis and we filed suit over those and motions asking that the court prevent them from ever going into effect…One of those is fully briefed and argued and the other we will have an argument soon and we’re just awaiting a ruling from the court on those as we work them down to the wire."
KUAR: So the ACLU has filed lawsuits against two impending laws in particular. So, let’s start with the one that bans transgender Arkansans younger than 18 from seeking and accessing transition-related care. So, can you talk about the suit and can you talk about to what led to filing the suit over the bill?
Dickson: "The law prevents healthcare for youth if it is for the purpose of affirming that youth’s gender. If the healthcare is for any other purpose, it’s perfectly fine. So it is specifically targeted [to] gender affirming care for transgender Arkansas, young people, which is absolutely necessary life-saving care that the trans youth, their parents, their doctors, their therapists, everyone is informed about, everyone grants consent to. It’s a very [concerted], group effort to make sure that these children have appropriate care.
So, for the Arkansas General Assembly to wholesale, sweepingly take away care that all major medical organizations and professionals and certainly those who work with transgender youth agree are absolutely medically necessary and actually life-saving care for these kids. So this law would ban that lifesaving care."
KUAR: And this impending ban if it becomes law, this impending ban on trans youth getting healthcare related to their transition has also led the ACLU to be involved with a lawsuit on someone who was fired for speaking out against the law. So do you see this being a trend with some of these laws and people speaking for or against them and being terminated, possibly?
Dickson: "I certainly hope it’s not a trend. The state government should not be cancelling contracts or terminating anyone’s employment because they disagree with their speech. I think it’s demonstrative of, you know, fear of political forces and in some respect, hostility to some messages."
KUAR: So the other lawsuit the ACLU filed is against Arkansas total abortion ban bill and so can you talk about this suit and the bill in question?
Dickson: "So…that bill seeks to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The whole purpose behind the legislation has been very clear. Sponsors have been very open. They want to try to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court and overturn existing constitutional law that’s been in place almost 50 years. So, clearly, it was blatantly unconstitutional, the latest in a long line of attempts again to outlaw abortion in the state and throw healthcare that is constitutionally protected rights of the people to access, along with their own conscious, their own medical provider and make their own private personal decisions.
So, it has created some confusion with respect to patients continuing access to medical care. But both [laws], with the trans youth health ban and with the abortion ban, those laws are not in effect. Healthcare is still lawful in the state and the goal of both of these cases is to make sure that healthcare remains accessible to Arkansans and that politicians stay out of our doctor’s offices and rooms."
KUAR: So you mention, sort of, the confusion that happens when these bills are passed, but they’re not quite enacted yet. Can you talk a little bit about what that means right now for people seeking abortions, or people seeking this healthcare that right now is legal, but theoretically could maybe not be in 20 or so days?
Dickson: "Well and in some cases there’s confusion about whether it is or isn’t legal and is or isn’t acceptable. So, it forces people to have to pay attention to politics and the legislative process to know what their fundamental rights are, or what they can access or not access. And particularly with respect to trans youth, it’s terrifying for families. We’re seeing numerous families leave the state because of this. Other families in jeopardy [are] wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Not everybody can leave, not everybody wants to leave, nobody should have to leave. But when their children’s life saving medical care is in jeopardy? It’s an incredible intrusion on the liberty of Arkansans."