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Federal judge blocks the country's first ban on gender-affirming care for minors

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A federal judge in Arkansas has struck down the nation's first-ever ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors. Yesterday, he ruled the state law unconstitutional, which could affect other states with similar laws on the books.

Daniel Breen, with member station KUAR in Little Rock, is with us. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL BREEN, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. So this case goes back to 2021. That is when lawmakers in Arkansas passed the nation's first-ever ban on gender-affirming health care for minors. Just walk me briefly through how it's ended up in federal court.

BREEN: Sure. So the law is called the Save Adolescence From Experimentation, or SAFE, Act. It was part of a flurry of legislation we saw here in Arkansas and other states really restricting the conduct and speech relating to the LGBTQ community and, specifically, transgender people. The law here in Arkansas basically threatens physicians with legal penalties for prescribing gender-affirming care to trans kids under 18.

KELLY: And just to be specific about what that means, this is treatments like puberty blockers and hormones to help kids feel more like the gender they identify with when that may be a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth?

BREEN: Yes, exactly. Lawmakers had argued that the law was necessary to protect kids from, quote-unquote, "irreversible procedures" like surgery, though I think it's important to note that gender-affirming surgeries really have never been performed on minors here in Arkansas.

KELLY: OK, so tell me more about how these arguments played out in court.

BREEN: So Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said it's, quote, "widely known that there is no scientific evidence that any child will benefit from these procedures" and that they risk permanent harm. When the state argued its case last December, it called a number of witnesses to make that argument. But when questioned, a number of them admitted that they hadn't really had any experience providing transgender teens with any type of gender-affirming treatments.

Judge Moody's ruling said that there is evidence showing that gender-affirming care for trans youth improves their mental health and the well-being of patients. He said testimony from well-credentialed experts and the doctors that the plaintiffs called showed that.

KELLY: And who are the plaintiffs, by the way?

BREEN: So the ACLU sued on behalf of four families of transgender teens and two physicians here. And they got a federal court to put the law on hold temporarily just days before it was set to go into effect. Now, that was in 2021, and the lawsuit against it has been moving through the courts ever since. But last December, there was an eight-day trial, and then yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge James Moody permanently blocked the law, although last night, Arkansas' attorney general said the state will appeal his ruling.

KELLY: Well, and the judge said the law is unconstitutional. What is his reasoning there?

BREEN: So Moody said the law violates the First, the Fifth and the 14th Amendments. He agreed with the ACLU's arguments that the First Amendment protects doctors' right to refer patients to other providers for gender-affirming care. The judge said the law also violates rights to due process and equal protection by taking away parents' rights to make decisions about their kids' health care and that it discriminates against minors based on their sex since the law wouldn't prohibit minors from accessing gender-affirming care so long as it aligns with their sex assigned at birth.

KELLY: And broaden this out for me briefly. At least 19 other states have similar laws banning gender-affirming care for trans minors. What might this federal court ruling mean for them?

BREEN: Well, it's not exactly clear how the ruling will affect other cases right now. But I think right now it's fair to say that this sets an important precedent for - in the case law surrounding issues like this. Most of those other state laws are also being challenged in court. I think this ruling is especially important because this was the first law of its kind to be passed in the country and a first time a law like this has been permanently put on hold.

KELLY: Daniel Breen, news director at KUAR in Little Rock. Thanks.

BREEN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK AND THE BANGAS, PJ MORTON SONG, "TSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Breen
Daniel Breen is a third-year undergraduate journalism student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.