Here’s a plot line for a bad horror movie. Your child needs medical help, so you work with doctors and counselors to find a treatment plan based on scientific evidence and professional standards. As a result, your child is happy and healthy. Then, the state decides it knows better than parents and doctors. It takes away your child and throws you in prison. To add a plot twist, this breach of family life is sanctioned by the party of “small government.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t a fictional dystopian film. This is a real-life horror story for parents of transgender children in Arkansas, a state that just criminalized transition-related health care for children, including hormone therapy and reversible puberty blockers. This kind of developmentally appropriate gender-affirming care is based on evidence, administered by hundreds of health professionals, and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union called the Arkansas bill “the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature.” Not to be outdone in the horror story department, the Texas legislature is now considering a similar bill. SB 1646 would add the administering or supplying of transition-related health care, as directed by medical or mental health professionals, to the legal definition of “child abuse,” including related penalties. The bill targets anyone involved in transition-related care, including doctors, parents and guardians.
Translation: Parents will be thrown in prison on felony charges for providing the care needed for their kids to flourish. Children will be deprived of their parents and of life-affirming and lifesaving care. Doing the right, responsible and loving thing will become a crime.
To his great credit, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, vetoed that state’s bill (a veto that the state legislature quickly overrode). Hutchinson said, “I acted on my convictions and based on what I learned in discussions with families, health-care professionals, faith leaders and transgender individuals … I came to the conclusion that this is a time to show compassion and to resist the temptation to severely restrict private family health-care decisions.”
Hutchinson did something simple and profound. He listened. He listened to the parents and children who are navigating transitional health care. And he listened to medical and mental health professionals who have the experience and data. Most people have no idea what it’s like to be transgender or to raise a transgender child. It’s OK to not know. The problem is pretending to know. That is the stuff of dogmatism, not democracy.
The political theorist E.E. Schattschneider defines democracy as “a form of collaboration of ignorant people and experts.” Our elected leaders make decisions about all sorts of complicated things — like, for example, the electricity grid. To make good decisions, they first listen to the experts. Otherwise, they risk making things worse.
Government wields the awesome power that is, in the words of John Locke, “the right of making laws with penalties.” The reason to espouse “small government” is to ensure that power does not squelch the life, liberty and happiness it is meant to protect. Seeking out knowledge about the consequences of “laws with penalties” is simply what it means to be vigilant about state power.
In other words, conservatism carries in its heart an imperative to listen and learn: “Maybe I don’t know enough; maybe if I interfere, I could make things worse.” If only others in Hutchinson’s party could be as true to their guiding philosophy.