In recent weeks, a number of Republican state legislatures have introduced bills placing new restrictions on transgender rights and medical care.
One of the farthest-reaching measures passed in Arkansas this week, prohibiting gender-confirming treatments or surgery for transgender youths — the first such ban to become law anywhere in the country.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, opposed the bill, after supporting other laws limiting transgender rights. He has been making the case that the legislation not only violates conservative principles but could also hurt Republicans politically.
Many conservatives disagree: The Republican-controlled state legislature overrode Mr. Hutchinson’s veto of the bill. And on Thursday, former President Donald J. Trump lashed out at Mr. Hutchinson, saying his opposition to the legislation would be the end of the term-limited governor’s political career. “Bye-bye, Asa,” Mr. Trump said.
We spoke to the governor about the new law, his belief that Republicans are too enmeshed in the culture wars and whether the party has strayed from fundamental conservative values. The interview has been lightly edited.
This week, the state legislature overrode your veto of a bill making Arkansas the first state to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for anyone under 18, even when they have parental consent. Why did you oppose the bill?
The bill is overbroad, it’s extreme and, very importantly, it does not grandfather in those young people who are currently under hormone treatment, which means that those in Arkansas who are undergoing, under the doctor’s care and parents’ care, hormonal treatment — that would be withdrawn in the middle of that.
That’s a terrible consequence of this bill. This is the most extreme law in the country. Arkansas would be the first state to have adopted this bill. And I could not in good conscience sign it with concerns that I had.
Last month, you signed bills barring trans women and girls from participating in sports competitions consistent with their gender identity and allowing doctors to refuse to treat trans patients because of religious or moral objections. Why is this legislation different for you?
You’ve got to evaluate each one as to whether it’s the proper role of government, whether it makes sense and whether it is the right balance. We’ve had a couple of different bills that have been of concern to those in the transgender community.
One of them is the Medical Conscience Act, which I signed, which protects the rights of health care workers to say there are certain procedures that might violate their right of conscience or convictions and they are not obligated to perform those procedures. It doesn’t apply to emergency circumstances. Obviously, under the Hippocratic oath you have that responsibility. But I saw that as a reasonable accommodation to those with sincerely held convictions.
The second bill that caused some concern was the girls in sports. I saw the competition with biological males as undermining the importance of our Title IX sports and women’s sports activities in the school environment. And so that, again, made sense to me. But when I saw this third bill come forward, I thought it went too far. And I said: “We’ve got to show greater tolerance. We’ve got to show greater compassion.” And so I didn’t sign that.
How many trans people are there in your state?
I don’t have specific statistics on how many would identify in the trans community. But if you look at those that are on hormonal treatment, then my best estimate is that it is fewer than 200. And that’s based on conversations with Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
So aren’t all three of these bills laws in search of a problem? Is Arkansas really awash in complaints about the rights of trans people?
That’s one of the biggest problems in the cultural war that we have — sometimes we’re trying to address the fear of something that does not exist in reality.
If you just look at Arkansas itself, there’s not any cases of biological males trying to compete in women’s sports. It’s not a problem that’s being addressed. It’s a concern about a future potential problem and what the legislature sees as trends across the country.
And so, yes, that’s part of the challenge of the cultural wars that we’re engaged in. Many times we’re acting out of fear of what could happen, or what our imagination says might happen, versus something that’s real and tangible.
You’ve urged Republicans to rethink their approach to cultural issues more generally. What are your concerns?
It’s hard to paint with a broad stroke because social issues are very broad. Pro-life protections, for example: I believe that’s a cause that is important, and you can’t run away from it.
But when you look at conservatism, historically, you’ve had the Ronald Reagan coalition of defense conservatives, economic conservatives and social conservatives, and all three of those have formed the base of the Republican Party. There’s some tension between the different elements of that base. And we’ve been able to manage that very well over the course of the last four decades.
But you see, today the cultural war part of conservatism has overshadowed in many instances, and we haven’t struck the right balance with the economic conservatism and the restraint of government.
And that’s how I’ve made the case on this issue, is that as we do this analysis and as we support our social conservatives and we fight for these issues, we still have to ask the question, is this a proper role of government? Is this something that should be managed through families and churches and where they impact the culture or are we going to fight every battle by the state trying to change the culture or preserve the culture?
That’s a question we’re not asking enough. And that’s where I’d like to see a greater level of debate, a greater level of restraint, and not just simply saying we can solve every problem in society by passing a law. That’s not conservatism. I want us to refocus on that.
Is there a risk politically for Republicans?
Well, it’s not a political debate that most advisers would say is good for me. I would be very doubtful that all of a sudden the Republican Party is going to be able to attract significant numbers of trans voters.
But what’s important here, the risk for the party, is that particularly millennials, young people, they want to see more tolerance. They do not believe in judging someone else and making laws that make their lives more difficult. And so while the transgender community is very small, there’s a larger group that does not like the government picking on them. And that’s where we lose in the broader population — reflecting intolerance and reflecting a lack of diversity.
If you’re going to be a broad-based party, you have to be true to your principles. And it starts with a restraint on government action.
I’ve been watching the criticism of you from conservatives over the past couple of days. I saw your interview with Tucker Carlson …
Were you entertained by it?
It was a good 10 minutes or so of television. And as you’re alluding to, this whole issue 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 trans people and their families? What do you think is driving this?
I think it’s fear of the direction of the Biden administration, where it’s going to go, and they’re trying to put some protective measures in place.
It’s also reflective of a very conservative base. There’s the pressure of, well, if I don’t support this, then I’m going to be the primary opponent from the right. And so it’s all about electoral survival as well. That’s the best answer that I could give you.
Are you worried about corporate boycotts or reputational damage to the state?
No. Part of the dynamic is that we’ve been trying to pass a hate crime law in Arkansas. The focus of our business community has been that Arkansas should not be the last state to pass the hate crime law. We need one. I think they’ve been a little bit mum in reference to raising a concern about some of the other bills going through because they’re trying to put the priority on that.
And so I actually haven’t had any calls from anybody from the Walmarts or the Tysons in reference to this particular bill. But in the broader context, sure. For six years, whether it’s been a bathroom bill or whether it’s been the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, every legislative session they’ve raised concerns about: how is this going to impact our recruitment of top talent to Arkansas to run the businesses? That is a concern to them. And it’s obviously a concern that I would have as well.
What would you say to those who would lose access to treatment because of this law?
Well, I hope that we can fix the law. Too early to tell, but I think the concern that I raised about there not being a grandfather clause resonated with many. There is some discussion about a legislative fix to that, so we’ll see how the session turns out on that point. I hope that they can redo that part of it, so we’re not denying treatment to those that are currently under treatment.
But more broadly than that, all I can say is I tried, and I hope that they have a sense that the highest official in Arkansas supports them.