Utah’s governor signs bill banning health care for gender-affirming youth

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s Republican governor signed bills Saturday that would bar youth from receiving gender-affirming health care and allow families to receive scholarships to pay for education outside the public school system, both measures are part of larger national movements.

Gov. Spencer Cox, who had not taken a public position on the transgender care measure, signed it a day after the Legislature sent it to his desk. Utah’s measure bans transgender surgeries for youth and bans hormone treatment for minors who have not yet been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The Republican-dominated state legislature prioritized the ban and considered the first draft of the measure less than 10 days ago, two days after the legislature opened this year’s session on Jan. 17.

Cox’s approval of the bill comes as lawmakers in at least 18 states are considering similar bills targeting health care for young transgender people.

READ MORE: Republican states aim to limit transgender health care in first bills of 2023

Cox explained in a statement that his decision was based on his belief that it is prudent to withhold “these permanent and life-changing treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term implications.”

“While we understand that our words will not be of much comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work for a better understanding the science and consequences behind these procedures,” he said.

Among the critics is the ACLU of Utah, which on Friday called on Cox to veto the bill.

In its letter to Cox, the civil rights organization said it was deeply concerned about the “harmful and potentially catastrophic effects this law will have on people’s lives and medical care, and the serious violations of people’s constitutional rights it will cause.”

“By cutting off medical treatment supported by every major medical association in the United States, the bill compromises the health and well-being of adolescents with gender dysphoria. It ties the hands of doctors and parents by limiting access to the only evidence-based treatment available for this serious medical condition and hinders their ability to perform their professional duties,” the letter said.

READ MORE: Anti-transgender legislation at the state level reverberates on Memorial Day

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Kennedy, a Republican family physician, said government oversight is necessary for vital health policy related to gender and youth.

Cox also signed another measure that would give students school choice scholarships to attend schools outside the public education system. The bill also increased teacher pay and benefits in an effort to ease the state’s teacher shortage.

At least a dozen other states are considering similar legislation in what has emerged as a landmark year for school choice battles. The debates have inflamed teachers’ unions and revived concerns about efforts to gradually privatize public education. If passed, they could change the nature of state government’s relationship with the education system and deepen the contrasts between what going to school looks like in many red versus blue states.

The Utah measure allocates $42 million in taxpayer funds to pay for scholarships so students can attend private schools. Roughly 5,000 students will receive $8,000 in scholarships, roughly double the state’s “weighted student unit” funding, which follows students to their schools. In an effort to placate staunch opposition from the state’s teachers union, the bill also includes $6,000 in salary and benefits for Utah teachers.

Cox’s statement explaining his decision focused primarily on increased teacher pay, while describing the measure as “striking a fine balance.”

“School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and eliminate unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed,” Cox said.

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