Lansing – As many as 200,000 girls are “at risk” for female genital mutilation in the United States each year, a national expert said Tuesday, calling Michigan a “hot spot” for a criminal procedure state legislators are working to end.

The Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved bills that would make female genital mutilation punishable by up to 15 years in prison, building on a federal penalty of up to five years behind bars.

The legislative action comes after two suburban Detroit doctors and a spouse were accused in the past month of cutting 7-year-old girls and conspiring to cover up the crime. It was the first federal indictment of its kind in the country, and Michigan legislators say the state needs tougher penalties to ensure it never happens here again.

Female genital mutilation is not a Muslim practice, said Lori Post, an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine and director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern University, but the harmful traditional practice is most common in areas with large Middle Eastern immigrant populations such as Metro Detroit.

People are “bringing their daughters here to eastern Michigan to have the surgeries done,” the Michigan native told legislators. “We have well-established Middle Eastern populations, and a lot of doctors that are performing this. This is worse than a back-alley abortion.”

Female genital mutilation is most prevalent in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East but has been condemned by international organizations, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

In the United States, an estimated 200,000 girls are of age and belong to a group that practices female genital mutilation, Post said.

The Senate legislation would prohibit a person from knowingly circumcising, removing or sewing together the labia major, labia minor, clitoris or vaginal tissue of anyone under the age of 18 in Michigan. Violators could not cite custom or ritual as a defense.

Northville Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was charged with female genital mutilation last month in federal court. Federal prosecutors also later charged Farmington Hills Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar.

Nagarwala is accused of performing the procedure at Attar’s clinic in Livonia and his wife is accused of helping Nagarwala perform the mutilations, according to court records. Farida Attar manages the clinic.

The two doctors and Attar’s wife are members of a local Dawoodi Bohra religious community who attend a Farmington Hills mosque. The Dawoodi Bohra is a small Muslim sect from India linked to a mutilation scandal in Australia two years ago.

Sponsoring Sen. Margaret O’Brien said she began working on the legislation before the Michigan case made national headlines, calling it “unfortunately good timing” considering the “horrific and barbaric act (that) was done in our state.”

“There are no health benefits to this,” said O’Brien, R-Portage. “There’s no good that comes out of it, and in fact female genital mutilation is designed for two purposes: One is to oppress girls and women, and the second is to make sure the future husband has complete control over them.”

Michigan legislators may also consider additional penalties to crack down on female genital mutilation, including the loss of medical license for any doctor that performs the procedure. State Sen. Rick Jones, the Grand Ledge Republican who helped sponsor the package, suggested violators should be placed on the state’s public sex offender registry.

The proposed laws could make Michigan a national leader in the fight against female genital mutilation, said Post, who warned against “medicalizing” the procedure and treating it as an acceptable alternative to less sanitary methods performed in some other parts of the country or world.

“It robs a girl of her sexuality, it results in high morbidity and mortality because it’s usually performed in unsanitary conditions where the adult holds the child down while someone uses a razors or other glass or metal tools to scrape away the female sex organs,” she said.

Attorney Shannon Smith, representing Nagarwala in the case, said last week she “absolutely” believes her client is being persecuted for her religious beliefs.

Nagarwala never performed female genital mutilation, said Smith, who argued the doctor merely wiped off a portion of the mucous membrane from the girls’ clitoris. A small amount was placed on a gauze pad and given to the family for burial, the lawyer said.

Post said Ethiopia, which has a majority Christian population, has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world. The procedure was also practiced in the United States in the 1800s before any Middle Eastern immigrants came here, she noted.

“Please stop blaming Muslims,” Post said. “The majority of Muslims do not practice FGM.”

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