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South Dakota Advances Bill Criminalizing Transition Care for Minors

Doctor and patient
Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom

Doctors could get a year in jail under the bill, approved by the state House and now going to the Senate.

The South Dakota House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to give gender-transition treatment to minors.

It would criminalize not only gender-affirmation surgeries -- which are not usually performed on minors anyway, in line with accepted medical protocols -- but also hormone treatment and puberty blockers. Doctors could receive up to a year in prison and a fine of $2,000.

The measure's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, called it a "bill of compassion," the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports. He said it's all right for adults to choose gender-transition procedures, but "subjecting children to these interventions is deeply hurtful. ... This bill is about protecting children." The bill now goes to the state Senate, where a committee could consider it as early as next week.

Gov. Kristi Noem, also a Republican, has "expressed concern" about the legislation, the Argus Leader notes, but has not said whether she will sign it. "When you take public policy and try to fill parenting gaps with more government, you have to be very careful about the precedent you're setting," she told reporters last week.

This week a similar bill was introduced in Kentucky. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox, it "would make it a felony for medical providers to prescribe medications, including puberty-blocking or hormone treatments, or conduct surgeries, for anyone younger than 18 with the intent to alter their gender," The Courier-Journal of Louisville reports.

Legislation criminalizing such care has been introduced in Florida. Bills have also been introduced in South Carolina and Missouri to ban transition-related care for minors, but they wouldn't impose criminal penalties on doctors. A Georgia lawmaker said last fall that she is preparing a bill to prohibit such care for young people, but it hasn't been introduced yet. A Texas legislator is planning to introduce a bill like this as well.

South Dakota's action brought quick outcry from LGBTQ and other civil rights groups.

"At the Trevor Project, we know based on the work we do every day that respecting and affirming a young person's identity is crucial to their health and well-being," said Dr. Alexis Chavez, medical director for the group, in a press release. "HB 1057 poses a grave threat to transgender and nonbinary youth in South Dakota, and we call upon South Dakota lawmakers and Governor Noem to stop this dangerous bill in its tracks. This bill actively contradicts evidence-based medical recommendations and restricts parents' ability to support their child with best-practice care, which has been shown to decrease suicide risk. Medical decisions should be made between doctors and their families -- politicians have no role in this intensely personal process." The group has just issued a research brief on the benefits of such care.

"A group of extreme lawmakers, led by Rep. Fred Deutsch, are targeting transgender youth, spreading misinformation and using vicious, harmful rhetoric while doing so," added Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Deustch and these anti-trans elected officials want to discriminate against transgender and gender-nonconforming South Dakotans, full stop. If HB 1057 were to become law, it would send a strong message to trans youth that they are less than their peers and that lawmakers in the capitol know better than doctors, parents, and trans youth. ... We implore the Senate to vote against this harmful legislation."

"By blocking medical care supported by every major medical association, the legislature is compromising the health of trans youth in dangerous and potentially life-threatening ways," said a statement issued by Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. "Discrimination against a marginalized group is a distraction from the state's real needs and hurts us all. Transgender young people live in our state and need to feel like the government represents them too. The more we legislate solutions in search of problems, the more our communities suffer." The ACLU pointed out that business and medical groups oppose the bill as well.

The ACLU has threatened to sue if the bill becomes law. Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group, has offered to defend the state pro bono in such an event.

There are other anti-trans bills pending in South Dakota and around the nation. In South Dakota, they include one requiring school counselors to out trans kids to their parents and one allowing parents to veto treatment for trans kids. Find more from GLAAD here.

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