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A disturbing abuse of state power
Mar. 28, 2023 9:37 am
This month, the Iowa Legislature debated whether the state should expand its power to prohibit trans youth and their families from accessing life saving health care. Gov. Kim Reynolds made it state law.
Marshaling the power of the state to deprive a population of necessary health care should concern every single Iowan. You do not need to have a trans child or understand the complexities of being trans anywhere on earth to reject these bills as abuse of power. Some proponents claim physicians expose children to “experimental procedures.” In reality, trans youth as early as the 1930s were first to advocate for their health care. Many proponents deploy fear-based sensationalized language to misconstrue health care as sinister, including inaccurate mention of “chemicals” or “sterilization.” As I listened intently to floor debates, it became clear that none of the so-called “studies” cited were verifiable or sound. Proponents cited the “Sweden Study,” whose author publicly has decried this study’s weaponization. We heard references to Jamie Reed, a so-called “whistleblower,” but Reed’s claims are also discredited. In short, proponents of the ban villainize doctors with discredited “evidence” that merely confirms their own bias.
Disinformation and manipulation of public opinion have broader social consequences: a recent social media study found that algorithms for anti-trans content are doorways to hate groups. Language operates in an ecosystem of laws that would exile LGBTQ people from public education and trans people from public life — as was made clear by a CPAC speaker who declared “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” A recent investigation of disinformation ecosystems reveals strategies to vilify and craft vague bills that hope to survive legal scrutiny.
If we believe that we operate as a democratic society, state censorship and disinformation are not ways to govern.
I have heard Iowans share “this is not the Iowa where I was raised.” This might be true in the last 50 years. However, our state played a role in the story of American eugenics. Take for example, Harry Laughlin, born in Oskaloosa, who managed the Eugenics Record Office. Laughlin’s obsession with eradicating what he believed to be “defective genetic lines” targeted everyone from disabled people, migrants, and those who did not adhere to gender norms. Laughlin didn’t target people’s identities, but rather broad characteristics he believed made them unfit for public life: epilepsy, alcoholism, “degeneracy,” “idiocy,” “lunacy,” and more. His 1922 book, “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States,” informed policymakers and scientists in the U.S. and informed practices of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.
In the same state Capitol where trans youth were targeted for violence through the deprivation of care, nearly a hundred years ago another generation of legislators passed laws that deployed sterilization against 2,185 Iowans, all between 1911-1974. Then, medicine was a tool used by the state to eradicate the people perceived as “unfit.”
Now, we have rigorous medical ethics systems, including practices of informed consent between patients, families, and their support systems. Those should serve as the fundamental check against the gross misuse of state power, a fundamental lesson of this chapter of history.
Now, the state is using its power to weaponize medicine against vulnerable populations. If we fail to acknowledge the abuse of state power operative at this moment, there is no telling what harm will come next.
E Cram is an assistant professor of communication studies and gender, women’s and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa and is a trans person who lives in Iowa City.
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