Washington — The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced to the full House a bill sponsored by Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, that would increase the maximum federal penalty for female genital mutilation from five years in prison to 15 years.
The legislation came about after federal prosecutors filed charges in the nation's first case involving two Michigan physicians who allegedly performed the procedure on two 7-year-old girls.
The Stopping Abusive Female Exploitation (SAFE) Act, also sponsored by New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, applies to the cutting of genitals of girls and women younger than age 18, which has been a federal crime since 1996.
“We realized that our federal statutes weren’t really consistent with what some other countries are doing around the world,” Trott said in an interview.
“I don’t know if raising it from five years to 15 years is enough of a disincentive for doctors not to be doing this, but it’s certainly a start.”
In the United Kingdom, perpetrators face up to 14 years in prison and in France up to 20 years, according to Trott’s office.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, backed the Trott-Maloney legislation Thursday, saying the current penalty of five years is “insufficient.” Goodlatte expressed alarm about the prevalence of the practice in the United States in the last two decades.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last year that roughly 513,000 women and girls in America have been cut or are “at risk” of being cut because of their age or because they or their family belongs to a group that practices general mutilation – a threefold increase since the CDC’s earlier estimate, based on 1990 data.
Female genital mutilation “is a grotesque, barbaric practice that provides no health benefits for women and girls, and has long-lasting and harmful physical and psychological consequences,” Goodlatte said at a committee markup.
“The criminals committing this horrific act against small children are not doctors. They are butchers. And state medical licensing boards should act accordingly.”
Detroit Rep. John Conyers, the committee’s ranking Democrat, agreed and said he supports the legislation, which also expresses the “sense of Congress” that states should enact laws requiring health care professionals, teachers and school employees to report instances of suspected female genital mutilation to law enforcement.
Co-sponsors include U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden; and Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey.
Trott said he doesn’t expect the House will take up the legislation until a similar bill passes the Senate.
“We’ve heard there’s a couple senators that are very much behind the change,” Trott said. “It’s a simple change, but I think it’s an important one because there’s not any role in our society for this kind of custom.”
Federal prosecutors said earlier this year that two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota were cut at a Livonia clinic. Four girls from Michigan ages 8 to 12 were also cut, according to authorities.
In total, eight people have been charged in a case alleging a 12-year conspiracy that the government says involved cutting prepubescent girls as part of a procedure practiced by some members of a small Muslim sect from India, the Dawoodi Bohra. In Metro Detroit, most members of the sect belong to a mosque in Farmington Hills.
Defense lawyers contend that the procedure that the government says was performed on the girls was benign and not female genital mutilation. A trial is set for June 2018 in federal court.
Some members of the Dawoodi Bohra community have said that genital mutilation is performed to suppress female sexuality, reduce sexual pleasure and curb promiscuity, according to court records.
Under federal law, violators may not use custom or ritual as a defense.
The procedure has no health benefits, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO and CDC say the procedure can lead to problems urinating, cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth, increased risk of death for both mother and infant in subsequent pregnancies and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Michigan in June increased the state penalty for the crime to up to 15 years in prison. The state also made it a 15-year felony to transport a girl from Michigan to another state or country for female general mutilation.
The state laws also extend the statute of limitations for victims and allow the state to permanently revoke the health care license of doctors or other medical professionals who perform the procedure.
Robert Snell and Jonathan Oosting contributed