Why GOP lawmakers want to stop doctors from prescribing gender-affirming care for Utah’s youth

State Sen. Mike Kennedy’s bill would block doctors from prescribing puberty blockers and bans body-altering surgeries for minors.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol building Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Picking up where they left off last year, Republican lawmakers in Utah are starting their 2023 legislative session with bills targeting transgender youth.

Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, seeks to completely ban surgeries on minors that are part of an effort to help them present publicly as a gender different from what they were assigned at birth. The bill also blocks medical professionals from prescribing hormone treatments, such as puberty blockers, beginning in May 2023.

Kennedy, a physician, said he is motivated to protect children from making irreversible changes to their bodies.

“Our country is witnessing a radical and dangerous push for children to enter this version of healthcare. Caring for our children does not mean riding the latest radical wave. Caring for our children means stepping back from the churning waters and asking some tough, complex questions,” Kennedy said.

The ban on gender-affirming care may be the attention-grabbing part of the proposed legislation, but Kennedy’s bill does several other things, including directing the Utah Departmentment of Health and Human Services to study hormone treatments for transgender youth and make recommendations about when such treatments should be allowed. It clamps down on the ability of doctors to prescribe hormone treatments. There also is a provision allowing patients who underwent hormone therapy to sue physicians for malpractice.

One of Kennedy’s expert witnesses on Wednesday afternoon was Chloe Cole, a California teenager who transitioned from female to male, then later transitioned back. Cole started hormone therapy shortly before her 13th birthday and underwent surgery to remove her breasts when she was 15.

“It was the worst mistake that I ever made. My childhood was destroyed for the sake of medical experimentation,” Cole told lawmakers.

“This bill will prevent what happened to me from happening to others. Children deserve better than what I was getting,” Cole added.

Several parents pushed back against the proposed bill, scolding Kennedy for seeking to have the government interfere in what is a personal medical decision.

“You’re not going to doctor’s appointments with me with my child. You’re not at family nights. You’re not with me on field trips. You are taking away the rights of parents. You need to knock it off,” Katherine Homer said.

Denise Begue, who has a child who identifies as transgender, said finding appropriate care for her child has been a long and challenging road.

“Thankfully, my child and our family are allowed to make informed decisions with the support and input of medical professionals. I’m grateful our family gets to make these decisions. Please allow me to be a parent and make informed choices on behalf of my child,” Begue said.

Drew Armstrong, the founder of Dragon Dads, a support group for parents of transgender children, said access to gender-affirming treatment saved his child’s life.

“Our son started on (puberty) blockers, then cross-sex hormones and finally top surgery at 17. Absent these treatments, I believe the odds are that our happy, healthy 21-year-old wouldn’t be with us,” Armstrong said.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said Kennedy’s bill betrayed the ideals of limited government that Utah Republicans claim to hold dear.

“We’re dealing with a nationwide moral panic around the lives of transgender children. Last session, there was a moral panic around vaccine mandates. We had lawmakers saying we cannot strip away parental rights, and we had to trust families to make decisions about the medical care of their children. That’s all out the window now,” Williams told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Leor Sapir, from the Manhattan Institute and who is a prominent conservative critic of gender-affirming medical treatments on minors, said it’s true that transgender youth commit suicide at a higher rate than their peers but claimed there is no evidence that gender issues are the reason.

“The claim constantly conveyed to parents of gender-distressed teenagers that they can either have a dead daughter or a live trans son has no basis in evidence. It constitutes nothing short of emotional blackmail,” Sapir said.

“Could you share a little about your credentials and clinical experience caring for children?” Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, a pediatrician, asked of Sapir.

Sapir responded that he is a researcher with a Ph.D. in political science.

“The Manhattan Institute is a public policy think tank,” Sapir replied.

“So, not medical,” Plumb clarified.

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, offered an amendment to ban all youth from undergoing body-altering surgery, not just those who identify as transgender,

“We happen to live in a state that loves plastic surgery. If we’re going to target the kids and the ability for parents to make decisions with their providers, then all children should be included and not targeting a specific group of kids,” Escamilla said.

Escamilla’s amendment was rejected on a party-line vote, with all five Republicans voting against it. Sen. Plumb’s attempt to put a one-year time limit on the ban on prescribing hormone therapy was also rejected by the Republican majority on the panel.

Kennedy assured his colleagues he would continue working to find a solution for a complicated and emotional issue.

“We can’t allow social policy to outpace science. The permanence of the consequences is too great,” Kennedy said.

After more than an hour of discussion, the committee approved the bill — again on a party-line vote. It now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

Correction, Jan. 19, 2:40 p.m. • This story has been updated to correct Denise Begue’s name.