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Home » Blocking gender-affirming health care in Utah could be found unconstitutional, a legal review found
A legislative review obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune says that Utah Senate Bill 16 could be challenged in court as unconstitutional. The revised bill passed the Utah House on Thursday.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather Tuesday, January 24, 2023 for a rally in support of transgender youth at the Salt Lake City Capitol.
| Jan 26, 2023 at 8:48 p.m | Updated: 9:52 p.m
A bill designed to prevent doctors from providing gender-affirming health care to transgender minors could be ruled unconstitutional by a court, a legal review by the Utah Legislature has found.
Still, the Utah House gave its final approval of the bill on Thursday. House lawmakers passed a slightly different bill than the senators sent to them earlier this week, meaning state senators will have to vote on the new version of the House of Representatives. This vote could take place as early as tomorrow.
Senate Bill 16 bans operations on minors when they are intended as part of a sex reassignment surgery. The bill also imposes a moratorium on prescribing hormone treatments for new patients, such as puberty blockers, for transgender youth. During this hiatus, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will review the scientific data on the use of these drugs.
The legislation also makes it easier for transgender patients to sue medical providers for medical malpractice if they change their decision.
The bill passed by a vote of 58 to 14. Rep. Quinn Kotter was the only Republican to vote against the law, while Democrats were unified against the ban.
The Utah Senate must approve amendments passed by the House of Representatives before the legislation goes to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk. Once signed by Cox, the ban will take effect immediately. The original version of the bill pushed back the ban until May.
In an interview with KSL NewsRadio, Cox said he was ready to enact the Senate’s version of the ban. On Thursday, a spokesman for the governor said Cox was reviewing the latest version of the House of Representatives.
Ahead of the vote, MP Katy Hall, R-Ogden said her peers have a moral obligation to vote for the law to protect children from making a lasting choice at a young age.
“We must stand up and protect them. The future of our state, our nation and the world depends on the young people we are privileged to serve,” Hall said.
Freshman Rep. Saraha Hayes, D-Salt Lake City, fought back tears as she urged her colleagues to “pause” the bill and focus on the needs of children.
“I think we’re focusing on the transgender part and not that they’re kids. These are our nieces and nephews. These are the kids next door. That’s your best friend’s teenager,” Hayes said.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, a physician, voted in favor of the bill but was troubled by the heated rhetoric surrounding the debate.
“The two sides of this discussion either see these treatments as always and only consistently harmful to children, and the other side sees these treatments as always and only beneficial to children. The truth lies somewhere between those two things,” Ward said.
“Many in the trans community consider us their enemy for passing this law, even though we do so with an honest spirit of compassion,” he added.
A legal opinion from attorneys obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune warns that the legislation could be found unconstitutional by a federal court on a number of grounds.
According to the report, the ban on hormone therapy for new patients could be problematic, as there is no specific end date. Because of this, a court could decide that it is functionally a ban. Federal courts have blocked similar bans in other states.
Because SB16, sponsored by R-Alpine Sen. Mike Kennedy, specifically singles out transgender people, it could violate the Constitution’s equality clause, and federal courts have stopped similar bills in Alabama and Arkansas for that reason.
Utah legislation blocks surgeries on minors, such as breast reduction or augmentation, as part of a sex reassignment surgery while allowing the same surgeries for other reasons of identity, and claims that the government protects children from medical procedures fall short.
Legislative attorneys also warn that SB16 could trample on a parent’s right to direct their child’s medical care. While parental rights are not absolute, courts have held that any state intervention must be based on an overriding interest and have a narrow focus. A federal court found that Alabama’s ban met neither standard, as twenty-two major medical associations advocated the use of drugs for conversion.
Equality Utah’s Troy Williams said he expects a legal challenge to the legislation, which is likely to happen shortly.
“With the new replacement, SB 16 is no longer a moratorium but a total ban on transgender medical care. Utah lawmakers have ensured that litigation is now inevitable. This debate is far from over. It will go to court next,” Williams said in a text message.