Representative Ashley Hinson (R-Marion) opened discussion on female genital mutilation Wednesday warning the topic isn’t pleasant. The Iowa House passed a bill that would make the practice illegal and also would educate Iowans about the topic.
Democrat Representatives Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines), Rick Olson (D-Des Moines), Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (D-Ames) and Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton) voted against the legislation.
“We are talking about the act of female genital mutilation,” Hinson said. “In essence a sexual assault on a young girl’s private parts that scars her for life both literally and figuratively. It’s cutting, removing, sewing closed all or parts of a girl or woman’s external genitals for no medical reason whatsoever.”
If anyone carries out such a mutilation or cutting on a minor, Hinson said it’d carry a class D felony. Anyone transporting a minor anywhere for the practice is guilty of the same felony. During the subcommittee process Hinson said there were conversations about how it might impact the immigrant community.
“While we can agree this is a cultural practice, this cutting can interfere with the natural function of a woman’s body,” Hinson said.
Representative Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids) proposed an amendment to change the wording from female genital mutilation to female genital cutting.
“The term can actually be harmful to the very people that we seek to protect through this bill,” Bennett said. “That’s not to say that this procedure is not horrifying, we are labeling these women and I think we should avoid doing harm to the very people we are trying to protect. I think this should go into our state code as female genital cutting.”
Representative Marti Anderson (D-Des Moines) spoke in support of Rep. Bennett’s amendment.
“We do not want people to be ostracized or stuck with a label called mutilation,” she said.
Rep. Hinson said the change is unnecessary. The World Health Organization and the Office on Women’s Health through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services use the FGM term.
Rep. Bennett closed by asking for support on the amendment.
“I think that we know sometimes that our understanding of issues evolves,” she said. “We might look at something a certain way and then we learn more about the issue.”
If the goal is to protect the women, Bennett said the House should listen to them.
“We should use the language that works better for them to talk about this issue,” Bennett said.
Anderson offered two amendments to the bill, but she withdrew both of them. The first would’ve lowered the penalty from a class D felony to an aggravated misdemeanor.
“As with most infrafamily issues of violence, people who are involved just want it to stop,” Anderson said. “They just want the violence to stop. They aren’t interested in having their loved ones go to prison and some of the women whose family tradition is female genital cutting do not want it criminalized.”
Anderson said they wanted community education to stop female genital mutilation, but they don’t want those people put in prison because those people believe they did what was in the best interest of the child.
The other amendment would’ve taken out the cultural language in the bill.
“I don’t think this section is needed in the bill,” Anderson said. “I don’t see anything like this in other criminal laws. This language about customs and rituals, as I said, is not respectful to the culture who are making efforts to stop it.”
Representative Steve Holt (R-Denison) filed an amendment to the bill that included an education component. The amendment states the crime victims assistance division of the office of the attorney general, in collaboration with community insiders and culturally specific victims services programs, shall initiate an education campaign to increase awareness regarding the health risks of, the prohibitions against and the criminal penalties associated with female genital mutilation.
“According to the Center for Disease Control over 500,000 women and girls were at risk for female genital mutilation or its consequences in 2012,” Holt said. “This is three times higher than estimates based on 1990 data. The number of girls under 18 is four times higher than the 1990 estimate and this is because in the United State and right here in Iowa we have a growing number of people from areas where female genital mutilation is practiced.”
Holt said while Iowa values diversity, it is important that out of many, there is one.
“Clearly this practice is not in keeping with our values and we need to ensure this practice is illegal in Iowa,” he said. “While I believe it is absolutely appropriate to criminalize, I believe it is also absolutely important to educate so we don’t have to incarcerate.”
Anderson said in 2002 there was a similar bill filed, but that representative was convinced to pull the bill so efforts to educate about the issue could continue.
“Well, here we are, years later, and I appreciate this amendment because not only will it allow the continuation of education, but it will have a good government agency responsible for helping get this off the ground,” she said.
Holt’s amendment passed.
Anderson’s amendment that would require the University of Iowa to develop protocols and procedures for helping women who have experienced female genital mutilation.
This amendment also succeeded.
Representative Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City) spoke in support of the bill. He said having just had a daughter recently, issues like this hit home a little more.
“I got to thinking about this topic maybe a month ago or so and it pained me to think of this happening to not only my little daughter, but to just little girls in the state of Iowa,” he said. “I cannot fathom what this would be like and I feel so much for those who have been victims of this.”
Representative Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton) said she believes anyone who mutilates a child and is prosecuted as a criminal and found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they should be sentenced accordingly. Any parent who knowingly acts in a matter that puts their child at substantial risk, she said, should be prosecuted.
“It doesn’t matter the purpose you’re doing them for, it doesn’t matter what culture you come from, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a U.S. citizen,” Wolfe said.
But, she said, Iowa already has laws for such conduct.
“We are treating people who do the same conduct differently and I think we have a lot of crimes on our books,” she said. “I don’t quite understand why this is an issue.”
Wolfe added that while every person in the room and the state likely doesn’t support cutting off any part of a child or person’s anatomy, she believes genital mutilation is already a crime and she doesn’t support laws that are addressing something already addressed in Iowa code.
Anderson addressed some of what her Democrat colleague said. Part of the reason for this bill, she said, is that a federal law from 1996 was thrown out recently by a federal judge who said making this behavior criminal belongs to the states.
“I do want to point out that somebody who does female genital cutting, whether they’re a member of a new culture in Iowa or an old culture in Iowa or anybody in Iowa, this bill will apply to them,” Anderson said. “Female cutting is illegal in 16 African and Middle Eastern nations. Twenty-six states have passed this bill.”
She said the resistance brought up with this bill has been brought up with every effort to end intrafamily violence in the last 50 years.
“Fifty years ago there weren’t any rape centers,” she said. “Forty years ago child sexual abuse was not even part of the child abuse law. Forty years ago rape was only penile penetration of a vagina. There was no consideration of other forms that we now consider rape or that men could be raped. Thirty-five years ago the literature said that incest happened to one in a million children — we know that’s not true. And we made a law, 726, to outlaw incest.
“There was a time where there was no law that you couldn’t batter a woman, but we found we needed a specific criminal act in order to have it taken seriously. We have to make it clear by having a specific law to protect children.”
Laws, Anderson said, are moral standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in a society. As lawmakers have done in the past, they’ve stated their values against other violent crimes by addressing them specifically. And the same thing has to happen here.
Holt said he wanted to know for sure that Iowa’s child abuse laws already covered female genital mutilation.
“The feedback I got back was ambiguous,” Holt said. “It was not conclusive that our current child abuse laws under certain arguments in court would’ve covered this procedure. This is not legislation initiated to make any kind of a statement, it is to make absolutely sure that there is no doubt that in the state of Iowa, female genital mutilation is not acceptable and is illegal.”
Hinson said the hope would be for zero instances of female genital mutilation. But, she said, according to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 90 percent of women age 15-49 in Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Ghana have experienced the practice.
“I think zero is a great goal and this bill makes a statement in getting to that point,” Hinson said. “This bill sends a very clear message — this specific assault on young women will not be tolerated here in Iowa.”