CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Crowds at the West Virginia state Capitol pleaded with lawmakers Thursday to show as much compassion for saving the lives of transgender children as they showed for unborn fetuses when they voted to ban abortion just months ago.
Over and over, dozens of doctors, parents and LGBTQ people told the Republican supermajority during a hearing that a decision to ban gender-affirming care for youth would put children's lives at risk. West Virginia is among 26 states considering bans to restrict gender-affirming care for minors or young adults, with the most recent action being in South Dakota and in Utah, where the Republican governor just signed that state's bill into law. A judge is reviewing whether to strike down Arkansas' law after temporarily blocking it last year.
Transgender and gender nonconforming children attempt suicide at a disproportionately high rate, and West Virginia has the largest per capita population of transgender youth in the nation.
"You all like to use rhetoric about not killing children as a justification for passing legislation, as you did this summer. You will kill children if you pass this," said the Rev. Jenny Williams, a United Methodist pastor in Preston County. "If you oppose the killing of children like you say you do, I would hope that you apply your principals consistently."
Multiple people told lawmakers they would have blood on their hands if they advance the bill to ban gender-affirming treatments for minors, which has moved out of two House committees and is now up for consideration before the full House of Delegates. West Virginia has a Republican governor and one of the largest Republican majorities in any state legislature in the country, and the legislation has a high chance of becoming law.
Some of the handful of lawmakers in attendance watched attentively, others looked at their phones or laptops or averted their eyes. People were given one minute to talk before they were cut off and told to sit down. Almost 80 people spoke against the bill. Two spoke in support.
Paula Lepp, who said she is a Christian parent of a Christian transgender child, told lawmakers she believes the bill is contrary to the teachings of Jesus to care for the most marginalized.
"The bottom line is this: I would rather have a live daughter than a dead son, and this bill puts that at risk," she said.
Republicans in other states who have moved to limit access to the treatments for minors have often characterized the treatments as medically unproven and potentially dangerous in the long term, as another political battle against liberal ideologies. They also say teenagers shouldn't undergo irreversible surgeries.
Braden Roten, one of the two people who spoke in support of the bill, urged lawmakers to look past the crowds of people who showed up to speak against it and think about what conservatives would want.
"Despite the crowd opposing this bill, this is a red state and there's a big push in the conservative movement for this bill," he said, as people watching from the chamber galleries and floor booed. "If you don't vote on this bill we will vote you out."
At least 88 bills seeking to restrict gender affirming care for minors or young adults have been introduced across 26 states. West Virginia's measure prohibits gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy for youth.
Many doctors, mental health specialists and medical groups have argued that treatments for young transgender people are safe and beneficial, though rigorous long-term research is lacking. Federal health officials have described the gender-affirming care as crucial to the health and wellbeing of transgender children and adolescents.
Charleston pediatric physician Dr. Allison Holstein spoke Thursday on behalf of West Virginia chapter the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said the bill interferes with doctors ability to provide the best medical care to their patients.
"The bill is dangerous, it's an intrusion on the physician-patient relationship," she said. "The attempt to insert politics into medical practice are troubling and very concerning."
Staff from the Women's Health Center of West Virginia - formerly West Virginia's only abortion provider, before the procedure was practically outlawed - also spoke against the bill. The clinic, which offers services predominately to low-income people on Medicaid, began offering gender-affirming hormone therapy when abortion was banned.
Executive Director Katie Quiñonez read a statement on behalf of a transgender man who said prior to coming out as transgender, he attempted suicide four times. The first time he was 12.
"If you're so pro-life, why are you trying to kill trans kids?" Quinonez said.
Women's Health Center Communications Director Kaylen Barker, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, said she's tired of having to come to the Capitol to justify her existence and the experiences of people she loves.
"Leave us alone," Barker cried. "Find something useful to do with your time, like fix the damn roads."