South Dakota Bill Criminalizing Youth Gender-Affirming Care Advances

Republican South Dakota State Representative Fred Deutsch (left) has led the effort to criminalize doctors for providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth.
Twitter/ @FredDeutsch

LGBTQ advocates in South Dakota are scrambling to stop a Republican-driven bill there that would criminalize doctors who provide gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

That legislation — the first of its kind to pass any level of a state legislature, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — easily cleared the GOP-controlled South Dakota House of Representatives by a 46-23 margin and it now moves to the State Senate, which is also overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. The law would ban hormone treatment, gender confirmation surgeries (though professional standards of care recommend that such procedures not be undertaken on youth of this age, in any event), and other forms of gender-affirming care for minors.

A broad slate of advocates are strongly opposing the legislation, which follows a recent pattern of conservative bills aimed at transgender youth in a number of US states. After efforts were made in the past half dozen years to restrict bathroom access for trans youth, conservatives now appear to be focusing on curtailing the rights of trans youth in healthcare and sports.

The South Dakota State Medical Association, the Human Rights Campaign, the Sanford Health nonprofit care network, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the South Dakota Retailers Association, the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, and LEAD South Dakota, a group that works on social justice issues related to women and families, are among the opponents of the legislation. The ACLU of South Dakota is vowing to take on the law in court if it clears both houses and is signed into law by Republican Governor Kristi Noem.

Noem’s office did not respond to questions for this story regarding her stance on the legislation, but said at a recent press conference that she does have “a few concerns” about the bill.

“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 said.

“By blocking medical care supported by every major medical association, this legislation represents a callous disregard for the health and wellness of South Dakota’s transgender youth, some of the most vulnerable people in our state,” Heather Smith, executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota, said in a written statement. “We want South Dakotans to know that we are investigating all of our legal options. If this bill becomes law, it will be challenged. We will see you in court.”

Republican State Representative Fred Deutsch, who carried the bill in the lower chamber, did not respond to requests for comment. Deutsch recently made headlines when he compared gender-affirming care to the Holocaust.

“I’ve had family members killed in Auschwitz,” he said, according to CNN. “And I’ve seen the pictures of the bizarre medical experiments. I don’t want that to happen to our kids. And that’s what’s going on right now.”

The Kelsey Coalition, an organization that opposes transgender rights and claims to “promote policies and laws to protect young people who identify as transgender or nonbinary from medical and psychological harms,” told Gay City News that they have consulted with Deutsch about the legislation. The organization is supportive of the transphobic South Dakota bill.

“We disagree that legislation banning blockers, hormones, and surgeries to minors is harmful,” the Kelsey Coalition told Gay City News in a lengthy email. “To the contrary, we are trying to protect them from the harms of these drugs, hormones, and surgeries. There are thousands of young people living with unimaginable regret over what their parents agreed to let doctors and surgeons do to them when they were younger. The harms are irreversible. These are the young people that need our protection.”

The organization went on to claim that “many young detransitioners often say that the reason why they thought they were trans is because they were confused about their sexual feelings and grew up to realize they are gay or lesbian.”

“Detransitioners” is a term often peddled by transphobes in a manner similar to the way homophobes claim gay folks can become “ex-gay.”

But that organization’s concerns do not represent the positions of key medical professionals. Dr. James Madara, who is CEO of the American Medical Association, denounced the legislation in a letter to state lawmakers, saying it “represents legislative intrusion into the practice of medicine and will be detrimental to the health of transgender children in South Dakota.”

Furthermore, a study published early this year in the journal Pediatrics showed that those who have access to puberty blockers have lower rates of suicide. According to that study, the research marked the first time a study demonstrated the relationship between puberty blockers and suicide risk.

It is not clear how legislators plan to vote on the bill in the State Senate, but the GOP’s strong grip on the upper house does not bode well for Democrats who are aiming to thwart the bill. Neither Senate Majority Leader Kris K. Langer nor Democratic Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert returned emails seeking comment for this story.