In South Dakota, some are arguing that protecting children is bad for business.
The state’s House of Representatives will vote today on a bill that would prohibit doctors from providing gender transition surgery, puberty-blockers, or hormone therapy to children under 16. The legislation has drawn routine condemnations from LGBT organizations. But one of the most common objections has been that it will hurt South Dakota’s bottom line.
The Vulnerable Child Protection Act (HB 1057) seeks to end “criminal acts against vulnerable children, who are too young to understand the impact that sterility, mutilation, and other health risks that are lifelong will have on them later in life,” said sponsor Rep. Fred Deutsch. Deutsch, a representative from Florence, introduced the bill after learning that at least three facilities in South Dakota currently provide sex-change procedures and hormone treatments to gender-dysphoric minors.
Deutsch’s bill passed the House Affairs Committee with a vote of 8–5 last week, making it one of the few such bills in any state to make it out of committee. Deutsch told First Things he’s optimistic that it has the votes to pass in the House. But only “time will tell” whether it can move through the Senate and across the governor’s desk.
Some of its main opponents are businessmen. The Sioux Falls South Dakota Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill. Sanford Health, one of the largest employers in the Dakotas, is also fighting it. Rep. Jamie Smith, who is against the bill, has stated he has received pushback from national companies. And the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce has denounced the bill because it would “jeopardize economic development.”
“South Dakota is home to a growing number of national and international businesses, including banks, research firms, manufacturers and health care systems, that believe workplaces and communities need to be inclusive and use the talents of everyone,” Chamber president David Owen said. “When South Dakota considers draconian rules that affect a limited number of people, we run the risk of triggering economic consequences that include the loss of conventions, tournaments, top-level entertainment and business investment from outside industries.”
In a newsletter later posted on Facebook, he added: “There are multiple examples of conventions, tournaments, entertainers boycotting communities and even entire states . . . there is a growing list of national/international companies that follow inclusive workforce policies and will not invest in states that pass laws discriminating against classes of people including gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.”
Deutsch said he suspects these objections are a “smokescreen,” but that they nonetheless threaten the bill. “If enough of the legislators sense that it is indeed a threat, it will cost us votes, and it could potentially cost us the entire vote,” he told First Things.
The bill faces another obstacle. Some insist that even moderate laws like Deutsch’s—which addresses only children, and only children under age 16—constitute “government overreach.” The Chamber of Commerce’s official statement declared that “the Chamber is a conservative organization that views HB 1057 as government overreach . . . [South Dakota] is not an appropriate place to use the power of state government to control issues that are personal and extremely complicated.” “It is far reaching and sets a bold precedent of big government,” Sanford pediatrician Michelle Schimelpfenig has said.
Republican Governor Kristi Noem has not yet offered an opinion on the bill itself, but she sounded a similar note during her weekly press conference last Friday. “I have a few concerns,” she said. “I would say that when you take public policy and try to fill parenting gaps with more government, you have to be very careful about the precedent you’re setting.”
As Deutsch sees it, it’s not a question of big government, but one of common sense. “We’re asking lay legislators to take a vote on a medical issue where we have contradictory testimony between the medical experts,” he told First Things. “So we’re asking legislators to use common sense—and we have a lot of common sense in South Dakota, so I’m hopeful that on that level, we’ll do ok.”
Every state in the Union has laws restricting alcohol use by minors—this should also be mandatory for dangerous medical procedures that have no proven therapeutic benefit. Should children—who are legally too young to drive or to drink—be legally permitted to consent to chemical abuse, to unsafe surgical procedures that can lead to sterilization, mutilation, trauma, and lifelong regret?
Last week, Sydney Wright, a twenty-year-old woman who underwent a sex change at age eighteen and later detransitioned, testified before the House Affairs Committee. She described how testosterone made her obese and pre-diabetic, at risk of heart attack and teenage menopause; today, even after a painful detransition process, she still lives with effects she now regrets (her voice remains deep, her body masculine). “No doctor or therapist suggested I give myself time to grow up, or wait and see what happens with counseling sessions,” she said. “No doctor or therapist told me most young people outgrow their feelings of wanting to be the opposite sex.” Whether out of ideological commitment or economic self-interest, businessmen, politicians, and activists are choosing to ignore her suffering rather than ensure South Dakota’s children never experience similar pain in future.
Ramona Tausz is associate editor of First Things.