Utah kids couldn’t get gender-affirming surgeries if a new bill finds traction in Legislature

The bill, proposed by GOP state Sen. Michael Kennedy, would prevent minors from getting surgery to treat gender dysphoria, while allowing those procedures for other “medically necessary” reasons.

Dec. 20, 2022 update: The bill to ban gender-affirming surgeries on minors in Utah has now been submitted by Sen. Michael S. Kennedy.

A Utah legislative committee advanced a proposal to ban gender-affirming surgeries on minors in Utah, teeing up a debate on the contentious issue for the upcoming 2023 session.

The proposal, led by Republican state Sen. Michael Kennedy in the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, would prohibit surgeries on minors diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” the medical diagnosis of psychological distress resulting from a conflict between the gender a person has been assigned at birth and their gender identity.

The proposal is similar to a bill introduced earlier this year that blocked both gender-altering surgery and the use of hormone therapy or puberty blockers on minors. That bill died during the 2022 session without a committee vote.

Critics of the bill, primarily the Democratic members of the committee, criticized Kennedy’s reasoning for the bill by highlighting inconsistencies in his argument. For instance, if a doctor were to say a minor needed breast surgery to alleviate pain or another “medically necessary” reason, that would be permitted under the bill. But, the surgery would be prohibited if it is intended to treat gender dysphoria.

Rep. Jennifer Dailey Provost, D-Salt Lake City, warned Kennedy’s proposal would create a conflict in how Utahns access medical care.

“You could have identical twins. One has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and the other hasn’t. One would qualify for treatment, and one wouldn’t under this bill,” Dailey-Provost said.

Three states, Arizona, Alabama and Arkansas, currently have bans on surgeries to change sex characteristics. The Arkansas statute is on hold as it has been challenged in the courts. Legislative lawyers warned Utah could also be facing a legal challenge if they were to pass this legislation next year.

“I think the guarantee we absolutely can count on is if we pass this legislation, there will be a lawsuit. The state will be involved in very, very expensive litigation. And I do believe the state will lose,” Dailey-Provost concurred.

Others criticized Kennedy’s proposal, saying it was improper for the state to step on the rights of parents to insert itself into what is a private medical decision.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, an anesthesiologist, asked why the rights of parents are respected if they are seeking cosmetic surgery for a minor but ignored in this specific circumstance.

“I have taken care of minors seeking cosmetic procedures by a doctor, and the state was not in that clinic being part of that decision between the patient, the parents and the doctor. And yet, in this identical procedure, you’re seeking to put the government in that clinic visit. Help me understand the difference,” Harrison said.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that just under two percent of high school students identify as transgender, but not all receive gender-affirming care.

Kennedy, a physician, said the effectiveness of surgery as a treatment for gender identity issues is unproven and was uncomfortable with a procedure that had a permanent impact.

“The evidence for whether or not this actually does what we hope it does for these individuals is weak. It’s available, but it’s weak. All I’m asking for is that we be thoughtful about what is a novel treatment before we open this up to whatever anybody wants to do,” Kennedy told the committee.

John Armstrong, the parent of a transgender child who first came out at the age of three, told the committee his son had gender-affirming surgery when they were 17, something this legislation would not allow.

“That saved their life. There’s no question about that. My kid suffered dramatically from suicide-inducing gender dysphoria. I have a problem with you guys getting in between the decision I made with my doctor. When I asked, ‘how do we help my child,’ and they tell me this is the best we’ve got, I’m going to go with that,” Armstrong said.

The Health and Human Services Interim Committee recommended the bill, but did not get a unanimous vote, with all Democrats and one Republican voting no. The measure now moves into the queue of proposed legislation for the 2023 Utah Legislature that begins in January.

In August, the Utah Republican Party approved a resolution calling for a ban on all gender-affirming treatments for minors, including surgery, hormone therapy and puberty blockers. The two top Republicans in the Utah Legislature, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, signed on as sponsors of that resolution.