How Oregon Rep. Charlie Conrad changed his mind to vote for abortion, gender-affirming care bill

Everyone at the Oregon Capitol knew how an April committee vote on legislative Democrats’ sweeping measure to expand access to abortion and gender-affirming care would go. 

Democrats who hold the majority in the Legislature believe voters gave them a mandate to pass House Bill 2002, which would protect medical providers from prosecution for providing reproductive health care or gender-affirming care. Republicans adamantly opposed it, focusing most of their ire on provisions in the bill allowing minors of any age to obtain abortions, contraception and other reproductive care without their parents’ knowledge and teens 15 or older to access gender-affirming care without their parents knowing. 

But what followed that vote was a surprise: One Republican, who has voted with the party on many bills, changed his mind on HB 2002 after doing more research.

Charlie Conrad, a freshman representative and former police officer from the small unincorporated community of Dexter in rural Lane County, joined fellow Republicans in voting against it in the House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee. He worried that young people would succumb to social pressure or poor decision-making skills and go down a path of medical transition that they’d come to regret. 

“We need to do better for them, and we need to protect them,” he said before voting against the bill.

But then, as Conrad later explained in an interview with the Capital Chronicle, he realized that he wasn’t comfortable with what he knew about gender-affirming care. 

“I haven’t had personal experience with that,” he said. “I don’t have any friends or family that have gone through that, or friends that have had kids that have gone through that. That’s a realm that I don’t have a lot of personal and relevant experience with.”

So he decided to learn what he could. He reached out to health care providers, who helped him connect with parents of trans kids and learn more about what kind of care is provided for minors. And nearly a month later, when Conrad got his next chance to vote on House Bill 2002 on the House floor, he joined every Democrat in voting for it while every other Republican voted no. 

Conrad didn’t speak about the bill on the floor while fellow Republicans spent hours trying to derail it by sending it back to committees or postponing the vote indefinitely or for months. He voted for those attempts – explaining later that he supported efforts to have more public input and discussion about the bill. 

Other Republicans knew ahead of time that he would vote for the measure, but that vote came as a surprise to Capitol observers. Conrad explained it in a three-page letter the next day.

He described what he learned after the committee hearing – that doctors follow established standards of care, and that gender-affirming treatment for minors generally doesn’t include surgeries or other irreversible changes. He concluded that doctors and other health care providers should be free to provide services without government interference or harassment. 

“My concerns are lessened knowing medical providers have adopted and are adhering to these standards,” Conrad wrote. “I trust that highly trained medical professionals and the respective licensing boards will address any lax practitioners that prove too eager to provide irreversible medical treatment to minors.” 

Doing research

Conrad said he thinks about the difference between possibilities and probabilities when considering policies. Some opponents of HB 2002 have focused on the most extreme possibilities – things like 10-year-old girls receiving abortions or troubled teens obtaining genital surgeries behind their parents’ backs – but Conrad wanted to know what’s likely to happen. 

“How often, really, is a doctor going to start certain surgical procedures that are irreversible on a 13-year-old? The possibility of that happening – technically, it’s there, but the probability is so small,” he said.

 Rep. Charlie Conrad, R-Dexter, was the only Republican who voted for a bill intended to guarantee access to abortion and gender-affirming care. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

He read standards of care established by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which sets guidelines for gender-affirming care. It doesn’t recommend any medical intervention for children pre-puberty, but instead that parents and other adults provide social support, such as allowing a child to use a different name or change their hair or clothing to feel more comfortable. 

Those standards also call for avoiding gender-affirming surgery until adulthood, while allowing some adolescents to take medication delaying or halting hormonal changes that come with puberty. Blocking testosterone or estrogen slows development of secondary sex characteristics, such as deep voices and facial hair in male people and breast growth and menstruation in female people.  

Conrad also learned that doctors strive to involve parents whenever they can, both when children explore their gender identity and when a young person is seeking reproductive health care, including abortions. But in some cases, parents don’t support their kids.

He met one mother of a transgender teenager who described how her child’s friend, also transgender, was kicked out of their house by unaccepting parents. That tracked with Conrad’s 14 years working as a Springfield police officer, where he encountered many children with irresponsible parents.  

“There are parents that have no business being a parent,” he said. “They abandon their children, they leave their children to fend for themselves. And now you have children, juveniles that need assistance, are looking for something and this will allow other adults to be able to come in and help that child out and help guide them through that process.”

Conrad said he tries to take the same approach of learning as much as possible about the issues covered in every bill. He serves on House committees that handle criminal justice, health care, behavioral health, veterans and emergency management, and he spends a lot of time talking to law enforcement, health care providers, attorneys and others in Lane County. 

Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard and the chair of the House Committee on Emergency Management, General Government, and Veterans, said Conrad should win an award for asking the best questions if such an award existed. 

Conrad didn’t speak directly with representatives from Basic Rights Oregon, the LGBTQ advocacy group that’s championing HB 2002. But Blair Stenvick, the organization’s communications director, said Conrad’s experience learning more about gender-affirming care and concluding that it’s a decision best left to doctors and patients tracks with polling they’ve seen. 

“Once folks learn more about what gender-affirming care is, how it works, the steps that a person and their doctor goes through to start that care, it seems like people often come around,” Stenvick said. 

The rare Republican

Conrad describes himself as a “pro-choice Republican,” an increasingly endangered group in Oregon politics although recent surveys demonstrate that 72% of all Oregon voters and 42% of Republican voters believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Oregon voters most recently weighed in on abortion in 2018, soundly defeating a ballot measure that would have barred public funding for abortion. That attempt to limit abortion failed in several rural and exurban counties won by Donald Trump in 2020 and Republican gubernatorial candidates Knute Buehler and Christine Drazan in 2018 and 2022. 

Buehler and 2016 Republican gubernatorial nominee Bud Pierce supported abortion rights, as did Buehler’s Republican successor in the state House, Cheri Helt. After Buehler lost his 2020 primary for the 2nd Congressional District – now represented by anti-abortion U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz – and Helt lost her 2020 general election, Oregon Right to Life trumpeted “the era of pro-choice Republicans in Oregon is over.” 

Conrad said he didn’t lead with supporting abortion rights when he ran, but he didn’t hide from it either. His campaign website describes how people are inherently different, and the state should enable them to follow their own beliefs. His district, which extends west into rural Lane County from the south hills of Eugene, is almost an even three-way split of Republicans, Democrats and non-affiliated voters.

He said he heard from constituents who agreed and disagreed with him after the vote. Inside the Capitol, Conrad said he only encountered respect from fellow Republicans who disagreed with his vote but respected that he voted his conscience. 

That includes Rep. Ed Diehl, R-Stayton, who has been the most outspoken opponent of HB 2002. Diehl, also a freshman legislator, said Republican leaders have never told him or any other caucus members how to vote on bills, and they’re free to disagree and debate bills publicly without fear of repercussions. 

“I have a ton of respect for Charlie, and he’s got his reasons,” Diehl said. “I’ll just leave it at that. But I do have a ton of respect for him.” 

Conrad said he thinks about how he’s representing the 70,000 people in his district, and how he represents the other Oregon Republicans who support abortion rights. If that means he faces a primary challenge in 2024, so be it. 

“Once session is over, and I’m going around and I’m talking to folks, undoubtedly, it’s going to come up,” he said. “This is who I am. I’m working hard to represent you, and if I’m not the right person for you, then please go to the ballot and choose somebody that does represent you. But this is who I am.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.