Politics & Government

It’s ‘child abuse.’ SC lawmakers advance bill to criminalize female genital mutilation

S.C. lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday to criminalize female genital mutilation as child abuse after a judge struck down a federal ban.

S.C. House Judiciary Committee members voted 24-0 to move the bill to the full House for a vote.

The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group of two dozen lawmakers, would make attempting, performing or facilitating the practice on a minor under the age of 18, or an incapacitated adult, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison or a $20,000 fine, or both.

It also would penalize those who consent to the procedure, such as a parent or guardian.

“It’s important for women and women’s rights,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Berkeley. “We need to protect women who are under the age of 18 form bodily mutilation without their consent. It’s very harmful to young girls, particularly those under the age of 13.”

A physician, nurse or other medical professional who performs, participates in or facilitates female genital mutilation also would have his or her professional license or certification permanently revoked.

The bill makes an exception for valid medical procedures.

Female genital mutilation — or FGM — describes the practice of cutting, altering or removing part or all of a girl or woman’s external genitalia. Human rights groups condemn the act as an attempt to control the sexuality of women, discouraging them from having sex before marriage.

The move comes after a federal judge in November dropped charges against a Detroit doctor accused of female genital mutilation. Judge Bernard Friedman ruled Congress “overstepped its bounds” when it passed a 1996 law banning the practice.

In his decision, Friedman wrote U.S. criminal law generally is set and enforced by states — not by the federal government. Female genital mutilation should be no exception, he added. Afterward, several states have moved to outlaw the practice.

The practice can be found in cultures around the globe, predominately in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, as well as in some countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, according to the United Nation’s Population Fund. It is also practiced among migrant populations in North America, Australia and New Zealand, according to a UN agency.

More than 500,000 U.S. women and girls were at risk of the practice, according to a 2012 estimate from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It was something I did not realize was happening in the United States,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland. “Everybody can recognize this kind of procedure should be outlawed, especially for young women who could not consent.”

While unsure how prevalent the practice is in South Carolina, Bernstein said, “If it is happening, we need to make sure that we protect those young girls.”

The UN says the practice is not restricted to a particular faith. While practiced by some Muslim groups, “not all Islamic groups practice FGM, and many non-Islamic groups do, including some Christians, Ethiopian Jews and followers of certain traditional African religions. FGM is thus a cultural rather than a religious practice. In fact, many religious leaders have denounced it.”

Lawmakers in North Carolina, Idaho and Arkansas may pass similar legislation. Thus far, 28 states have outlawed the practice, according to a national campaign to “eradicate” it.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.