Connecticut lawmakers are considering legislation that would ban female genital mutilation, partly because of a US District Court judge’s ruling last fall that determined a federal prohibition was unconstitutional.
The General Assembly’s Public Health Committee heard testimony Monday on one of several bills proposed this session barring the procedure known as female circumcision or cutting. Advocates said 28 states have enacted laws to combat it, and Connecticut needs to join them.
The mutilation of girls’ external genitals for non-medical reasons is practiced in some two dozen African countries and parts of the Middle East and Asia. It also affects many immigrant and refugee communities in Europe and the US.
“This barbaric practice, which operates mainly in secrecy, must be stopped,” said Dorothy Cutter, a resident of Somers who testified at the public hearing. She urged committee members to pass a bill with stiff penalties that prohibits transporting girls across the state border to perform what she called “child abuse at its worst”.
Advocates warned after the judge’s ruling in Michigan that states like Connecticut, without laws on the books, could now become “destination states” for the practice. Legislation was proposed last year in Connecticut to make the practice a class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. That bill, however, didn’t move beyond a committee vote.
Last November, US District Judge Bernard Friedman threw out genital mutilation charges against a Michigan doctor, arguing the federal law that bans female genital mutilation was unconstitutional because Congress didn’t have the power to regulate it. Eight people were charged in that case. The government accused Dr Jumana Nagarwala of performing genital mutilation on nine girls from Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota at a suburban Detroit clinic.
She denies she committed any crime and says she performed a religious custom on girls from her Muslim sect. Federal prosecutors are seeking to reinstate the charges.
A wide range of interest groups submitted testimony supporting Connecticut’s legislation this year. But in testimony submitted by Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy, warned it’s “hard to know” if female genital mutilation is being practiced at all in Connecticut. She said creating a criminal penalty for those responsible could be a “difficult if not impossible burden for a young girl to bear”.
While Planned Parenthood opposes the practice, Yolen said the organization also recognizes the “unique challenges faced by immigrant women” and believes criminalising the ritual “may only further isolate those who, now that they are in the US, can and should become more fully integrated into our way of live”.
She urged Connecticut lawmakers to consider “a different approach to the issue” and instead enlist public health students or professionals to study the practice in Connecticut and identify “public health interventions” that could be used to mitigate or eliminate the procedure.