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ACLU files suit over Arkansas' transgender care ban

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Tuesday (May 25) against the state of Arkansas over a newly passed law that prohibits health care professionals from providing gender-transition procedures to individuals under age 18.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District against Act 626 was filed on behalf of four transgender youth and their families along with two doctors. It alleges the law violates the U.S. Constitution.

Act 626 prohibits physicians and health care professionals from providing gender transition procedures to individuals under age 18, or to refer minors to other health care professionals. It also prohibits the use of public funds or insurance coverage for gender transition procedures. It does not prohibit services for persons born with a “medically verifiable disorder of sex development,” such as external biological sex characteristics.

The suit says the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it discriminates on the basis of sex and transgender status. The same care denied transgender youth can be provided to nontransgender youth. It also violates the amendment’s Due Process clause by interfering with the right to parental autonomy. The ban on doctors’ referrals violates the First Amendment, the suit says.

According to an ACLU press release, the lawsuit is “the first of many legal challenges in response to a record-setting year of legislative attacks on transgender people, particularly transgender youth, across the country.”

The release said Arkansas is the only state to pass legislation banning care for transgender young persons so far, though such bills have been introduced elsewhere.

“This law would be devastating to trans youth and their families, forcing many to uproot their lives and leave the state to access the gender-affirming care they need,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas executive director.

The plaintiffs are Dylan Brandt and his mother, Joanna Brandt of Greenwood; Brooke Dennis and her parents, Amanda and Shayne Dennis, of Bentonville; Sabrina Jennen and her parents, Lacey and Aaron Jennen, of Fayetteville; and Parker Saxton and his father, Donnie Saxton, of Conway.

Two doctors also are challenging the law. One is Dr. Michelle Hutchison, a pediatric endocrinologist at UAMS who provides puberty delaying treatment and, starting around the age of 14, gender affirming hormone therapy at the Gender Spectrum Clinic at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The other is Dr. Kathryn Stambough, a UAMS pediatric and adolescent gynecology doctor who also works at the Gender Spectrum Clinic.

The lawsuit says about 160 patients are under the clinic’s care and 200 have been treated in total.

The suit names as defendants Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, the Arkansas State Medical Board, and the board’s executive director and members.

Rutledge, whose office will defend the law in court, said in a prepared statement, “I will aggressively defend Arkansas’ law which strongly limits permanent, life-altering sex changes to adolescents. I won’t sit idly by while radical groups such as the ACLU use our children as pawns for their own social agenda.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said, “I am saddened to hear that the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the State of Arkansas and our effort to protect children from chemical and surgical castration. Our children are incredibly precious and deserve the right to grow up safe and healthy. I am so thankful that we have a capable Attorney General in Leslie Rutledge and her wonderful staff who will fight hard to protect children against those who would harm them for political proposes. Sadly, there will be children in years to come who will be asking, ‘Where were the adults and why didn’t someone say no, this is not healthy for me to do to my body?’”

The lawsuit says the ban abruptly would halt treatments some youth are already receiving. At least six transgender adolescents treated by the Gender Spectrum Clinic have attempted suicide since the bill passed and “multiple” youth were admitted to the emergency room, the lawsuit says. None of the patients were known to have attempted suicide previously. Some parents are planning to move out of state if it takes effect, the suit says.

The lawsuit says transgender health procedures are supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and other medical groups.

House Bill 1570 passed the House, 70-22, and the Senate, 28-7, but then was vetoed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. That veto was overridden the next day by the House, 72-25, and the Senate, 25-8.

The lawsuit refers to comments by Hutchinson, who called it a “vast government overreach.” Referring to other transgender bills passed or introduced, it says, “The General Assembly’s passage of the Health Care Ban had nothing to do with protecting children and everything to do with expressing disapproval of transgender people.”

The press release said Brooke Dennis, 9, who was assigned as a male at birth, is fearful about what will happen if she does not receive gender-affirming medical care when puberty begins.

“Our child has known exactly who she is since she was 2 years old,” said Amanda Dennis. “She was a happy child and felt comfortable expressing herself, but when she began to feel pressure at school to pretend she is a boy, she began to really struggle. It was painful to watch our child in distress. Last year, when she told us she is a girl and would like to be called ‘Brooke’ and referred to using she and her pronouns, we supported her immediately, and the cloud of sadness lifted and her smile came back.”

The release said the lawsuit was filed by the ACLU’s Jon L. Stryker and Slobodan Randjelović LGBTQ & HIV Project; the ACLU of Arkansas; and three law firms: Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Gill Ragon Owen, and the Walas Law Firm.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.
This content has been contributed by the staff of our content partners Talk Business and Politics.