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Experts Say Outlawing Genital Mutilation Alone Can't Stop It

State Senator Margaret O'Brien - file photo

A state Senate committee holds a hearing Tuesday on bills to outlaw female genital mutilation in Michigan. It’s already a federal crime with a penalty of up to five years in prison. The bill’s sponsors say that’s not tough enough. But, a lot of experts say a tougher law may not be enough to deter an entrenched cultural and religious practice.

Republican Senator Margaret O’Brien said she was surprised to learn that Michigan didn’t already ban the practice of female genital mutilation.

“When you look at it, this is not something that should be embraced by anyone,” she said. “In fact, Muslims don’t embrace this, Christians don’t embrace it, but rather it’s small cultural sects within those religions who embrace it.”

O’Brien introduced the bills after two doctors from Michigan were indicted in federal court. They’re charged with conspiring to commit female genital mutilation on two seven-year-old girls from Minnesota.

The federal complaint does not make clear exactly what the doctors are supposed to have done. Female genital cutting can range from small ceremonial nicks to actually removing all or part of a girl’s genitalia.

O’Brien’s legislation takes aim at actually disfiguring or removing body parts. She said,

“We gotta get the word out that this is still happening and we have to stop it.”

But could new criminal sanctions drive the practice further underground? Frank Ravitch is the chair of the Law and Religion Department at Michigan State University School of Law.

“If you ban it, it doesn’t mean that people won’t still try to do it,” he said. “It may be that they do it in more unsanitary environments.”

Ravitch said that while female genital cutting is a very unique circumstance, there can be parallels drawn to the deaths of women from so-called “back-ally abortions” before Roe v. Wade.

But, he said, there’s simply no perfect answer. And criminalizing behavior rooted in deep cultural traditions doesn’t guarantee people will stop.

Kathy Wander is a biological anthropologist. She was part of a team that studied what happened in Senegal when the country criminalized female genital mutilation.

“Some families and some communities respond kind of with anger toward the criminalization of their traditions, their culture,” she said. “Their attitudes became a little more entrenched.”
“I’m not sure that this doctor in Michigan was thinking to herself ‘oh the federal law only has a five year penalty in prison and therefore I’m comfortable doing it, whereas if there was a 15 year penalty, I wouldn’t,’”

said Kayte Spector-Bagdady, attorney and bio-ethicist at the University of Michigan Medical School. Spector Bagdady said it would be an ethical violation for a medical professional to participate in female genital mutilation, even if only to ensure it’s done in a sterile environment.

“The primary obligation of the physician is to first do no harm,” she said. “And that’s kind of a thorny concept and there’s areas for discussion and compromise in the do no harm. However this is a very clear case of harm and physicians should never be involved in it.”

Spector-Bagdady said it’s the same reason doctors are ethically prohibited from participating in torture or executions. But she says outlawing female genital mutilation will not on its own stop the practice. Kathy Wander agrees.

“Increase funding for programs, increase funding for research to understand which programs are going to work particularly well in these communities,” she said. “Pairing criminalization with something else is likely to be much more effective.”

Experts suggest working with the communities that practice female genital cutting to better understand their perspective and educating parents that practice female genital cutting about the dangers and potential side effects of the procedure.

But Wander and other experts say the possibility of five years, 15 years, or even longer in prison simply may not be enough to stop a true believer for whom the practice is a way of life.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2013 there were up to 507 thousand US women and girls who either were at risk of mutilation or cutting or had already undergone the procedure.

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