LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has signed legislation making it easier to sue providers of gender-affirming care for children, a move that could effectively reinstate a blocked ban on such care.
Sanders on Monday signed the new law, which won't take effect until this summer. It would allow anyone who received gender-affirming care as a minor to file a malpractice lawsuit against their doctor for up to 15 years after they turn 18. Under current Arkansas law, medical malpractice claims must be filed within two years of an injury.
Legal experts have said the change could close access to gender-affirming care for children by making it nearly impossible for providers to get malpractice insurance.
"Arkansas infamously passed the first law in the nation to try to ban gender affirming care for trans youth and after hearing extensive evidence, the courts have blocked that ban," Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said in a statement. “This bill is an effort to achieve indirectly what the Constitution prohibits the state from doing directly.”
The new law is among a growing number of bills targeting transgender people, who have faced increasingly hostile rhetoric at statehouses. At least 175 bills targeting trans people have been introduced in statehouses so far this year, the most in a single year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The bill was signed as a federal judge is considering whether to strike down a 2021 Arkansas law that would prohibit doctors from providing gender-affirming hormone therapy or puberty blockers to anyone under 18 — or referring them to other doctors who can provide that care. No gender-affirming surgery is performed on minors in the state.
Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, who sponsored the malpractice law, said he didn't know if the measure would face a similar court challenge.
“Anything can create a court challenge in the world we live in today,” Stubblefield said. “I know we did what we thought was best for our children.”
U.S. District Judge Jay Moody temporarily blocked the state's ban on gender-affirming care for minors in 2021. Arkansas was the first state to enact such a ban, and several states have approved similar restrictions. A ban in Alabama has also been blocked by a federal judge.
Opponents of such treatments argue that minors are too young to make decisions about their futures. But every major medical group, including the American Medical Association, supports gender-affirming care for youths and has opposed the bans.
The malpractice legislation includes a “safe harbor” provision that would give doctors a defense against malpractice lawsuits over providing gender-affirming care for children, but only if they follow restrictions that experts have said are inconsistent with the standard of care for the treatments.
The new law won't take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns this year's session, which isn't expected to happen until next month at the earliest.
The bill is among several targeting transgender youth that have been proposed in Arkansas this year.
Others include legislation that would criminalize transgender adults using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The bill goes even further than a bathroom bill North Carolina repealed following widespread boycotts.
Dickson urged Sanders to hear from trans youth and those who care from them before signing any more bills affecting the LGBTQ community.