In recent weeks, a number of Republican state lawmakers have introduced bills imposing new restrictions on transgender rights and medical care.
One of the most far-reaching measures passed in Arkansas this week, banning gender-affirming treatment or surgery for transgender youth – the first such ban to be enacted into law anywhere in the country.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, opposed the bill after backing other laws restricting the rights of transgender people. He maintains that the legislation not only violates conservative principles, but could harm Republicans politically.
Many conservatives disagree: The Republican-controlled state legislature has overturned Mr. Hutchinson's veto on the bill. And on Thursday, former President Donald J. Trump lashed out at Mr. Hutchinson, saying his opposition to the legislation would spell the end of the governor's limited-term political career. & # 39; Bye, Asa, & # 39; Mr. Trump said.
We spoke to the governor about the new law, his belief that Republicans are too caught up in the culture wars, and whether the party has strayed from basic conservative values. The interview has been slightly modified.
This week, the state legislature overturned your veto on a bill, making Arkansas the first state to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for anyone under 18, even with parental consent. Why did you oppose the bill?
The bill is too broad, it is extreme and, very importantly, it is not a grandfather to those young people who are currently undergoing hormone treatment, which means that those in Arkansas who are under the care of the doctor and the care of the parents are undergoing hormonal treatment undergo – that would be withdrawn halfway through.
That is a terrible consequence of this bill. This is the most extreme law in the country. Arkansas would be the first state to pass this bill. And I couldn't sign it in good conscience with any concern I had.
Last month, you signed bills banning trans women and girls from participating in sports competitions consistent with their gender identity and allowing doctors to treat trans patients because of religious or moral objections. Why is this legislation different for you?
You have to judge them all on whether it is the right role for the government, whether it makes sense and whether it is the right balance. We've had a number of different accounts that are of concern to people in the transgender community.
One of these is the Medical Conscience Act, which I signed, which protects the rights of health professionals to say that there are certain procedures that could violate their right of conscience or convictions and that they are not required to perform those procedures. It does not apply to emergencies. Clearly, under the Hippocratic Oath, you have that responsibility. But I saw that as a reasonable adjustment for people with sincere beliefs.
The second bill that was of any concern was girls in the sport. I saw competition with biological men as undermining the importance of our Title IX sport and sports activities for women in the school environment. And so that made sense to me again. But when I saw this third bill come up, I thought it was going too far. And I said, “We have to show more tolerance. We have to show more compassion.” And so I didn't sign that.
How many transgender people are there in your country?
I don't have specific statistics on how many people would identify in the trans community. But if you look at those undergoing hormone treatment, my best guess is that there are fewer than 200. And that's based on interviews with Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Aren't all three of these laws looking for a problem? Is Arkansas Really Inundated With Complaints About Transgender Rights?
That's one of the biggest problems in the cultural war that we have – sometimes we try to deal with the fear of something that doesn't really exist.
If you only look at Arkansas itself, there are no instances of biological men trying to compete in women's sports. It is not a problem that is being addressed. It's a concern about a potential future problem and what the legislator sees as trends across the country.
And so, yes, that's part of the challenge of the cultural wars we're involved in. Often we act out of fear of what could happen, or what our imagination says could happen, rather than something that is real and tangible.
You have urged Republicans to rethink their approach to cultural issues more broadly. What are your concerns?
It is difficult to paint with a broad line because social issues are very broad. Pro-life protection, for example: I believe that's an important goal, and you can't run from it.
But if you look at conservatism, historically, you've had the Ronald Reagan coalition of defense conservatives, economic conservatives, and social conservatives, and those three are the foundation of the Republican Party. There is some tension between the different elements of that foundation. And we have managed to do that very well over the past four decades.
But you see, today the cultural warfare part of conservatism has in many cases overshadowed, and we haven't found the right balance with economic conservatism and government restraint.
And that's how I've defended the case on this issue, is that while we're doing this analysis and while we're supporting our social conservatives and fighting on these issues, we still have to ask the question, is this an appropriate role for the government? Is this something to be run by families and churches where they influence culture or are we going to fight every state struggle to change the culture or preserve the culture?
That's a question we don't ask enough. And there I would like to see more discussion and restraint, and not just say that we can solve every problem in society by passing a law. That's not conservatism. I want us to focus on that again.
Is there a political risk for Republicans?
Well, it's not a political debate that most advisers would say is good for me. I would very much doubt the Republican Party will suddenly be able to attract a significant number of trans voters.
But what's important here, the risk to the party, is that millennials, young people, in particular, want to see more tolerance. They don't believe in judging someone else and making laws that make their lives more difficult. And so while the transgender community is very small, there is a larger group who don't like the government to seek them out. And that's where we lose in the wider population – because of intolerance and because of a lack of diversity.
If you want to become a broad party, you have to be true to your principles. And it starts with a reluctance to act by the government.
I've been following conservative criticism of you for the past few days. I saw you interview with Tucker Carlson …
Did you like it?
It was about 10 minutes of television. And as you mean, this whole thing has become a bit of a circus. Why do you think so many conservatives feel the need to interfere in the private medical decisions of transgender people and their families? What do you think drives this?
I think it fears the direction of the Biden government where it is going and they are trying to take protective measures.
It also reflects a very conservative basis. There's the pressure of, well, if I don't support this, I'll be the right's main opponent. And so it is also all about surviving the election. That's the best answer I could give you.
Are you concerned about corporate boycotts or reputational damage to the state?
No. Part of the dynamic is we've been trying to pass a hate crime law in Arkansas. The focus of our business was that Arkansas should not be the last state to pass the hate crime law. We need one. I think they've been a bit of a mom about voicing their concerns about some of the other bills going on because they're trying to prioritize that.
And so I haven't actually had any phone calls from anyone at the Walmarts or the Tysons regarding this particular bill. But certainly in the broader context. For six years, whether it's a bathroom bill or the religious freedom restoration law, every legislative session they worry about: How is this going to affect our recruitment of top talent to Arkansas to help the companies run? That worries them. And clearly it is a concern I would have too.
What would you say to those who would lose access to treatment because of this law?
I hope we can settle the law. Too early to tell, but I think the concern I expressed about the lack of a grandfather clause resonated with many. There is some debate about a legal solution to that, so we'll see how the session turns out on that point. I hope they can redo that part of it, so we're not denying treatment to those currently under treatment.
But more generally, all I can say is that I've tried, and I hope they feel like the highest ranking official in Arkansas is backing them.