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A new bill would outlaw female genital mutilation in Michigan. But would that stop the practice?

May 1, 2017

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

O’Brien says she is taking aim against actually disfiguring or removing body parts.

“We got to get the word out that this is still happening and we have to stop it,” O'Brien said.

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

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

Ravitch says 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.

She says, “Some families and some communities respond kind of with anger toward the criminalization of their traditions, their culture. Their attitudes became a little more entrenched.”

Kayte Spector-Bagdady is an attorney and bio-ethicist at the University of Michigan Medical School.

She says, “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.’”

According to Spector-Bagdady, 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 says. “And that’s kind of a thorny concept and there’s area 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 says 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 says. “Pairing criminalization with something else is likely to be much more effective.”

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.