The Republican West Virginia Senate passed a bill Friday that would have banned some health services for transgender youth after approving a major change to add exemptions for youth at risk of self-harm or suicide.
“These kids are struggling, they have incredible hardships,” said Majority Leader Tom Tacubo, a pulmonologist, who urged support for mental health protections.
The bill would bar people under 18 from being prescribed hormone therapy and fully reversible medication that blocks the physical changes of puberty, buying patients and parents time to make future decisions about hormones.
The rate of suicidal ideation for transgender youth in Virginia is three times higher than the rate for all youth in the state, according to research and data compiled by WVU Medicine physicians using the West Virginia Youth Risk Survey.
During a Senate speech, Takubo cited 17 peer-reviewed studies showing a significant reduction in rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among youth with severe gender dysphoria who have access to drug treatment.
He found a supporter in Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Maroney, another trained physician, who said lawmakers would set “a dangerous precedent” by ignoring medical research for political gain.
“Who are we, to win elections, to tell people how to practice medicine? Should we change treatments? It’s unbelievable,” the Republican said, adding that lawmakers would not apply the same standard to drugs for cancer or mental illness.
The legislation also includes a ban on gender-affirming surgeries for minors, something medical professionals stress is not happening in West Virginia.
However, Takubo’s approved change would allow young people to access puberty blockers and hormone therapy if they experience severe gender dysphoria, under certain circumstances.
Gender dysphoria is defined by medical professionals as severe psychological distress experienced by those whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Lawmakers in West Virginia and other states pushing bans on transgender health care for youth and young adults often characterize gender-affirming treatments as medically unproven, potentially dangerous in the long term and a symptom of “woke” culture.
During Friday’s debate, Republican Sen. Eric Tarr echoed those concerns, saying the medical interventions doctors are making are too extreme and driven by “woke” culture.
“They’re trying to take pronouns out of our children’s textbooks,” Tarr said.
Every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association, supports gender-affirming care for youth.
Under Takubo’s change, a person under 18 would have to be diagnosed with severe gender dysphoria by at least two medical or mental health providers to access drug treatment. One would have to be a mental health provider or adolescent medicine specialist.
According to the bill, the dosage should be the lowest possible for “treatment of the psychiatric condition and not for gender reassignment purposes.”
Providers must be specifically trained to diagnose and treat severe adolescent gender dysphoria and must provide written testimony that medical interventions are necessary to prevent or limit self-harm or the potential for self-harm.
The minor’s parents and guardians must also give written consent for the treatments.
Hormone therapy could not be given to minors before the age of puberty, which West Virginia doctors say is not the case anyway.
The bill now returns to the House of Representatives for approval. It’s unclear what House lawmakers will do about the Senate bill’s changes. The proposal that passed the House by a wide margin last month included a ban on puberty-blocking drugs and hormone therapy, with no exceptions for mental health.
The bill passed the House 84-10, with all the “no” votes coming from the chamber’s shrinking Democratic delegation. They accused GOP lawmakers of putting children’s lives at risk to score political points with the national conservative movement.
This version provides exemptions for people born with a “medically verifiable disorder” including people with “external biological sex characteristics that are irresolvably ambiguous” and for people receiving treatments for an infection, injury, disease or disorder “caused or aggravated by performing gender transition procedures’.
People can also access the treatment if they are in “imminent danger of death or impairment of an important bodily function, unless surgery is performed”.
Speaking against Takubo’s amendment Friday, Republican Sen. Mark Maynard said he didn’t see why changes were necessary. He worried the additions could make the state vulnerable to a lawsuit.
“This amendment would deconstruct the clarity of the bill in its very simple terms,” Maynard said. “Those guardrails are already in this bill as it came to us from the House.”
The vote came a day after a crowd of protesters descended on the state Capitol, where chants of “trans kids matter” could be heard from the Senate chamber as lawmakers debated bills.
The Democratic Del. Danielle Walker, the only openly LGBTQ member, led chants of the state slogan: “Climbers are always free.”
“They’re trying to come for trans kids in West Virginia and they’re going to come for every one of us next,” said Sam Green of Huntington, wearing a trans pride flag draped over their shoulders as he addressed the crowd.
Cecelia Moran, an 18-year-old high school student from Marion County, said she fears banning any type of medically proven care could result in more young people leaving West Virginia, one of three states that lost population in the 2020 census in the USA. .
“I think a lot of young people are already struggling to stay here and feel welcome here and are already planning to get out of state as soon as possible,” he said.
Her mother, Rebecca Moran, said the bill is “just completely unnecessary” and health care decisions should be made by families and health care providers.
“It’s not what’s hurting our kids,” said Rebecca Moran, Fairmont councilwoman. “There are so many other things: homelessness, poverty.”