Senate panel rejects bill to ban medical care for trans youth in Arizona

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Skyler Morrison was barely taller than the podium, but the 13-year-old’s voice was firm on Wednesday as she told state legislators how important it was that her doctor be able to treat her properly — something that would be illegal if a change to state law they were considering won approval.

“This bill is a direct roadblock in my path to becoming comfortable in my own body,” she said.

Morrison was one of more than a dozen transgender children, parents and advocates who crowded into a Senate hearing room to beg Senate Health and Human Services Committee members not to pass a bill they said would have devastating consequences. For Morrison, the bill’s passage would force her to go through male puberty, which she said would do untold damage to her mental health. 

When all was said and done, one Republican senator joined with Democrats in voting down the controversial proposal that sought to ban gender-affirming care for trans kids in Arizona. 

Senate Bill 1138 would have made it illegal for doctors to provide minors with puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgeries, like mammoplasties or facial sculpting procedures. The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian lobbying organization known for pushing anti-LGBT policies, helped draft the bill. An identical bill in the House has yet to be debated. Critics said cutting trans youths off from necessary medical care could exacerbate mental health issues and lead to increased suicide risk. 

More than a dozen transgender children, parents and advocates crowded the hearing room to voice their disagreement. 

Gilbert Republican Sen. Warren Petersen, who sponsored the bill, said the intent was not to prevent people from transitioning, but rather to have children wait until they turned 18 so they could independently choose that route. He said imposing an age threshold on permanent physical changes was no different than preventing minors from partaking in smoking or drinking, and that children should be barred from decisions that could have dramatic consequences. 

“This bill is about protecting our children from irreversible changes,” he said. 

Blocking trans youth from puberty blockers and hormone therapy could lead to them developing unwanted and irreparable physical changes like Adam’s apples and breasts, which would later need to be surgically removed. 

Dr. Paul Hruz, an endocrinologist with no background in mental health research and no training or experience treating gender dysphoria, condemned gender affirmative care as experimental and harmful. 

“(Gender dysphoric children) have underlying psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression or eating disorders and need cognitive behavioral therapy to treat the underlying comorbidity, not be subjected to experimentation,” he said.

Hruz has been linked to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale-based Christian advocacy group that is notoriously anti-LGBTQ and has defended European laws requiring the sterilization of trangender individuals.  

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, compared genital reassignment surgery to female genital mutilation, which drew a quick rebuke from Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa. 

“Female genital mutilation doesn’t go through a process with psychiatrists and consent forms from parents,” he said. 

Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, who has a history of proposing anti-trans legislation, said a Swedish study of trans adults purportedly showed suicide rates increasing after gender confirmation surgery. In fact, the study itself warned it was not claiming the surgeries were the cause for increased suicide rates, but rather that the treatment by itself was not enough to prevent suicide among trans adults, considering the social stigmas they face. The study has been widely misquoted by conservatives seeking to restrict transgender care. 

Transgender teen Daniel Trujillo called on legislators to consider his future safety. His mother had spoken previously about the importance of being able to provide him with the care he needs after years of dismissing his unwavering conviction that he is a boy. Trujillo noted that gender-affirming care is supported by every major medical association and has been deemed crucial for ensuring the mental well-being of trans youth. 

“Transition-related medical care is super personal, and the government has no place in it,” he told the committee. 

Townsend called herself a “big proponent of parental rights” but expressed concern for children that might be forced into gender transition procedures by parents who misidentified their distress or were actively trying to change their child’s gender for personal preference. That’s why the government should overrule a parent’s right to make such drastic healthcare choices, she said. 

But that just isn’t true, Rev. Sandy Johnson said. The process for accessing medical interventions like hormone therapy or puberty blockers is neither quick nor easy: Her own daughter underwent six months of therapy before being allowed to take estrogen. And six months, she said, is more than enough for a professional therapist to identify coercion.

Another parent, Christina Heeley, told the committee that her son was hospitalized twice before he began receiving gender-affirming care. She said those were among the only times she could relax because when he was home, she worried he would commit suicide. 

“Do not let children suffer because you do not understand gender dysphoria,” she warned. 

Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist for the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said SB1138 was government overreach and it likely violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Abigail Jensen, the legal director for Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, said that a similar law in Arkansas has been tied up in the courts in a constitutional challenge. And in addition to the constitutional questions, she noted that the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination in health care. Jensen, who is herself transgender, said restricting access to life-saving, gender-affirming care would be detrimental for children experiencing gender dysphoria. 

“The first dose of estrogen was the most effective antidepressant I took,” she said. “The only way to reduce trans distress is through gender-affirming care.”

All three Democrats on the committee voted to kill the measure. They were joined by Pace, which led to a deadlocked 4-4 vote, killing the bill.

Pace said his time at the legislature and meetings with transgender advocates had changed his views on the issue. He acknowledged the numerous testimonials from parents and children, and said that although he does believe that gender reassignment surgery is a choice that should be made by the children once they’ve reached adulthood, he disagreed with everything else in the bill. 

“We heard testimonies about (gender-affirming care) saving lives. I don’t want my vote to stop those great things,” he said.

 Photo by Ted Eytan | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

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