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Judge blocks Arkansas' ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors

The ruling "sends a clear message to states across the country that gender-affirming care is lifesaving care," Holly Dickson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said.

A federal judge temporarily blocked an Arkansas law Wednesday that would have banned physicians in the state from providing transition-related health care — such as hormones and puberty blockers — to transgender minors.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the law in May on behalf of four trans youths and their parents, as well as two physicians who provide gender-affirming health care, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Supporters of the law argue that transition-related health care is "experimental" and that transgender minors are too young to receive the care.

Judge James M. Moody Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas heard arguments in the case Wednesday morning, granting the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction against the law, which was scheduled to take effect next week.

Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement that the ruling “sends a clear message to states across the country that gender-affirming care is lifesaving care, and we won’t let politicians in Arkansas — or anywhere else — take it away."

“Today’s victory is a testament to the trans youth of Arkansas and their allies, who never gave up the fight to protect access to gender- affirming care and who will continue to defend the right of all trans people to be their authentic selves, free from discrimination," she said. "We won’t rest until this cruel and unconstitutional law is struck down for good.” 

Demonstrators protest outside the state capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on March 18, 2021, as lawmakers considered a bill that bans physicians in the state from providing transition-related health care to transgender minors.Sydney Rasch / for ACLU

In addition to the ACLU, the plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Arkansas and the law firms of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Gill Ragon Owen and the Walas Law Firm.

The suit names Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and members of the Arkansas State Medical Board as defendants.

Rutledge told NBC News in an email after the ACLU filed the suit that she would “aggressively defend Arkansas’s law which strongly limits permanent, life-altering sex changes to adolescents.”

“I won’t sit idly by while radical groups such as the ACLU use our children as pawns for their own social agenda,” she said. 

The Arkansas State Medical Board said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The state received support from 17 state attorneys general who filed an amicus brief in the case — a move that attorneys have said is largely unprecedented, the 19th reported.

That level of support shows that the temporary injunction isn't the end, but the plaintiffs still celebrated it as a win.

Dylan Brandt, one of the young people represented by the ACLU, said during a news conference after the hearing Wednesday that the plaintiffs want other trans kids to know that "we have your back."

"We should all have freedom to make choices about our medical care with the support of our parents and experts in the field," the 15-year-old said.

Dylan Brandt's mom, Joanna Brandt, spoke on behalf of the parents involved in the suit.

"We have seen the benefits of this health care firsthand," she said during the news conference. "Our children were suffering, and with this care they have a level of hope and happiness we've never seen. We are no different than any other parent in Arkansas. We love our kids and we want them to grow up healthy, loved and safe."

Joanna Brandt said the law "ignores" what medical professionals say about gender-affirming care. Major medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the Endocrine Society, among others, support access to gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

Research has found that access to care such as puberty blockers, which temporarily pause puberty, are linked to a reduced risk of suicide among young trans people.

At least one physician in Arkansas said she saw the effects of the state's proposal even before it was slated to become law.

Just after the bill passed the House in late March, Michele Hutchison, a pediatric doctor in the Gender Spectrum Clinic at Arkansas Children's Hospital and another plaintiff in the case, testified in front of the state Senate that there were “multiple kids in our emergency room because of an attempted suicide, just in the last week.”

The ACLU, as well as grassroots groups in the state such as Intransitive Arkansas, a trans advocacy group, called on Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto the bill after it cleared the legislature in March, and he did.

At the time, he called the measure "a vast government overreach" into private medical decisions, but Arkansas legislators overrode the veto the next day.

Some Arkansas families with trans children have since left the state. Others, including some of those represented by the ACLU, have said they will leave if the law is not ultimately struck down.

During Wednesday's news conference, Chase Strangio, an attorney with the ACLU, noted that the group has recently had success in a number of states where measures targeting trans people were blocked by judges pending litigation.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Tennessee blocked a law that required businesses to post a notice if they allow transgender people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Last year, a federal judge in Idaho also blocked a law that would've banned transgender girls from playing on girls' sports teams in middle and high school and college.

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