South Dakota transgender 16-year-old Elliot Morehead testifies Jan. 31, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre against a bill to ban some forms of health care for transgender youth. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
PIERRE – A bill that would ban some forms of health care for transgender youth passed its first committee today at the Capitol, sparking a passionate debate among supporters and opponents.
The bill has been met with resistance from LGBTQ advocacy groups, medical professionals and concerned citizens. They argue the bill violates the rights of transgender children and their parents.
“This bill violates the United States Constitution,” said Samantha Chapman, of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. “If passed, HB 1080 could set off a public health crisis for transgender youth and their families, and open the door to governmental intrusions into the doctor-patient relationship as well as the parent-child relationship.”
If the legislation becomes law, health care professionals treating transgender children would be banned from prescribing drugs such as puberty blockers and prohibited from performing some types of surgeries.
Supporters of the bill argue those types of treatments – often referred to as gender-affirming care – are not appropriate for minors. They say minors are not capable of making informed decisions about their own medical care and that such treatments can have permanent physical and psychological effects.
Rep. Bethany Soye, R-Sioux Falls, introduced the “Help Not Harm Bill” and said Gov. Kristi Noem supports it. Soye said some types of transgender health care harm children to make a profit for providers.
“In the guise of medical treatment, children are being sterilized and turned into permanent medical patients,” Soye said. “This bill subjects doctors to review by their governing board if they engage in the prohibited practices.”
The bill not only says health care providers could lose their license if caught providing the banned services, but could also be held liable in lawsuits.
I am transgender and I'm proud. I'm in a body that has a couple more steps to being a hundred percent me.
– Elliot Morehead, transgender 16-year-old
Proponent testimony included three people from out-of-state who said they received gender-affirming care but said they later regretted the decision. One was Billy Burleigh, a 56-year-old from Louisiana, who began transitioning at 27.
“In hindsight, I see that I had several underlying problems that reinforced the false thought that I was a girl,” Burleigh said. “Transitioning didn’t help my mental health issues. I still had to deal with all of those after I transitioned.”
Michael Laidlaw, an endocrinologist from California, said there are risks associated with gender-affirming care.
“Opposite sex hormones are given in very high doses,” Laidlaw said. “Complications include increased risk of heart attacks and death, to cardiovascular disease, infertility and sexual dysfunction for females.”
An opponent of the bill, South Dakota-certified gender specialist Dr. Anne Dilenschneider, said gender-affirming surgeries are rare, and that drugs are only administered after years of therapy to analyze the condition of the child.
Dilenschneider told South Dakota Searchlight after the hearing that insurance providers in the state do not cover costs for transgender surgeries for minors, and that surgeries happen only in rare circumstances in South Dakota – for example, when a transgender child’s life is at immediate risk from suicide or self-harm, such as when a child tries to remove their own breasts.
A South Dakota transgender 16-year-old, Elliot Morehead, told the committee that care is not administered on a whim.
“I am transgender and I’m proud,” Morehead said. “I’m in a body that has a couple more steps to being a hundred percent me.”
Morehead said the bill would negate six months of work with a therapist that led to a recommendation to start hormone therapy. Morehead said the recommendation allows for an appointment to start testing and possibly receive gender-affirming treatment in the future.
Other critics of the bill, including the ACLU of South Dakota and the South Dakota Medical Association, argued the bill is harmful to the well-being and health of transgender minors. They said access to gender-affirming care is crucial for the mental and physical health of transgender people, and denying them access to treatments can lead to long-term consequences including depression, anxiety and suicide.
The ACLU and South Dakota Medical Association expect the bill to spark litigation if passed into law, resulting in potentially costly legal fees for the state.
The bill passed the committee on partisan lines, with two Democrats opposing it and 11 Republicans supporting it.
Rep. Kameron Nelson, D-Sioux Falls, called the bill unconstitutional and “an egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars,” given the lawsuits the legislation could cause.
“And please don’t sit here in committee stating that you are fiscally responsible,” Nelson said.
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