Staff Columnist

Iowa lawmakers must ban female genital mutilation

Nationwide law struck down by federal judge's ruling in a Michigan case

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

A federal judge said it is up to the states whether or not girls undergo female genital mutilation. Iowa lawmakers must make a statewide ban on this unnecessary and heinous practice their first priority.

U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled late last month as part of a Michigan case that female genital mutilation was “local criminal activity” for the states to regulate, not a commercial activity that could be regulated by Congress. “As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially assault,” he wrote.

Despite a worldwide campaign to stop this brutal procedure, it persists — primarily in other countries, but also in the U.S. It is generally performed on girls under the age of 15, and involves removal of female genitalia — a partial or total removal of the clitoris, and often the labia minora too. In some cases the vaginal opening is narrowed or sewn shut. There is no medical reason for this to be done; no health benefit. It isn’t some cultural or religious phenomenon that deserves respect.

The only reason female genital mutilation exists is to take away a woman’s ability to experience sexual pleasure and supposedly safeguard her chastity until marriage.

Practical ramifications are worse. Those subjected to the procedure are left bleeding, often with chronic infections or incontinence. Scars, physical and emotional, follow.

Because of this, the practice is banned in more than 40 countries. The U.S. had such a law on its books since 1996, amended in 2013 to prevent girls from being taken out of the country for the procedure. But the Michigan case, which involved nine 7-year-old girls transported by their parents from neighboring states to a Detroit emergency room doctor for after-hours procedures, was the first test of the ban.

With the federal prohibition removed, the 23 states without specific laws of their own must act to protect at-risk girls. Iowa is one of them.

A bill addressing female genital mutilation was introduced in 2016 by Iowa Rep. Marti Anderson, which would have made the practice a felony, even when a girl’s parents requested the procedure, unless specific medical reasons existed. Those who trafficked girls out of state to bypass the law would have been charged with a lesser felony. But the proposal died in committee without ever receiving debate.

Lawmakers’ priority in January must be to advance a bipartisan bill, which is then immediately be signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Specifically, Iowa law must:

• Send a strong message that female genital mutilation will not be tolerated.

• Give prosecutors the tools and resources to bring perpetrators to justice.

• Signal to state prosecutors that this practice is a crime that must be prosecuted.

• Provide education and outreach to at-risk communities and professionals likely to encounter girls at risk.

• Include measures to specifically prevent girls being trafficked across state lines for such procedures.

As the Michigan case makes all too clear, girls in the Midwest are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation. Iowa must not become a safe haven for such abuse. Quickly crafting and passing a statewide ban is imperative.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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