AUGUSTA – Two bills criminalizing the practice of female genital mutilation are competing for support in the Legislature.

Lawmakers fell just one vote short of criminalizing the practice in 2017, amid concerns that state and federal law already made the practice illegal and because the topic has been widely used to demonize immigrants or refugees from predominately Muslim countries in Africa.

One of the new bills, backed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has also drawn the support of a local chapter of an anti-Muslim hate group in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was calling attention to the bill and denouncing the group’s support Tuesday.

“People ask, ‘Is this happening in Maine?”” LePage said during a press conference on the bill. “The answer is simply, ‘Yes.’ Doctors and nurses in Maine have seen the brutal results either on the examining table or in the emergency room after it has gone horribly wrong.”

F.A. Cole, an author who suffered female genital mutilation as an 11-year-old in Sierra Leone, urged support for the bill.

She said she was stripped, blindfolded and tied up before several women sat on her and one mutilated her with a razor blade.

“I call it the weapon of death,” Cole said. “Afterwards I was covered in blood, it’s a night I will never forget.”

Cole said she is a Catholic and not a Muslim and yet her father, a doctor, still allowed the procedure to take place at the request of her stepmother. Cole said after the procedure children are brainwashed and told if they talk about it they will die.

“I’m pleading with the legislators in Maine, please protect these girls,” Cole said.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, the primary sponsor of LePage’s bill said the issue wasn’t about race or religion, and she welcomed the support of the Norway, Maine chapter of ACT for America.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors hate groups and extremists in the United States, obtained a series of emails it says document how Sirocki contacted both a local chapter and national office of ACT for America to support a press conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

In the emails obtained by the law center, the leader of the Norway chapter of ACT for America referred to Sirocki as “our sponsor for FGM.” The leader, who uses the pseudonym JB Giaour, said the bill is the “result of our initiation of this issue here in Maine.”

“This is incredible and anything you and your friends can do to muster support could easily make this happen this time,” he wrote.

Sirocki said in an interview Tuesday that she did share information about her press conference with the group and invited them to attend in support.

“It’s unfortunate people that oppose this particular bill have taken the tack to approach this common-sense legislation in this manner,” Sirocki said, adding that she was being labeled a racist when her main concern is protecting children from abuse. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but they are making it into a partisan and a race issue. If you ask me if I am hate motivated, I will tell you I hate child abuse, that’s my focus.”

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, the Senate sponsor of the legislation and a candidate for governor, said some had tried to politicize the issue by linking it to Islam but that was far from the intent of the bills’ sponsors.

“I would like to make it clear that this is very much a cultural issue and not a religious one and is very much a practice that cannot be tolerated on Maine soil,” Mason said.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said Tuesday she didn’t believe a new law was needed, and that assault of a child and aggravated assault were already against state law.

“If the Legislature believes there should be a specific crime to address this particular act, they certainly may enact such a measure,” Mills, a Democrat who is also running for governor, wrote in a message to the Press Herald. “But I think it would be accurate to say that I am unaware of any incidents of this practice occurring in Maine and that if there were any, I would be the first to prosecute such outrageous acts under the provisions of Maine’s Criminal Code …”

Democrats on Tuesday introduced a separate bill to criminalize female genital mutilation. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell and Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, defines the practice as a Class A crime, the highest charge in state law and punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine as much as $50,000. The Democratic bill also calls for outreach and education in specific communities where the practice may be occurring.

Republican and Democratic sponsors of the competing bills disputed which measure would be more effective and provide the greatest accountability for parents and guardians. There was also disagreement on the degree to which female genital mutilation is actually taking place in Maine.

LePage said MaineCare had paid for treatment for complications from female genital mutilation, with expenditures of $385,000 in 2017 and $338,000 in 2016 with some of the costs for recently injured children.

“So we know it is happening in Maine,” LePage said.

But he did not specify how many individuals were treated or whether health care practitioners reported the cases to law enforcement. The governor’s communications office did not respond to requests for additional information.

Warren and Cardone said there was no evidence to document the practice in Maine and that most cases identified here were from women who were victimized as children while they were living in another country.

The two Democrats also warned that provisions in the Republican bill would also allow authorities to access private school and medical records of victims.

Warren called the Republican bill “a cut-and-paste job” based on model legislation that has been pushed by ACT for America in other states.

Sirocki, the Scarborough Republican lawmaker, sponsored a similar bill that fell one vote short of passage in the Maine House in 2017. The ACLU of Maine said the bill would not solve the underlying problem and that education and outreach would be a better approach. But Megan Maloney, the Kennebec County District Attorney, said the Maine Prosecutors Association favored a specific law defining female genital mutilation.

Maloney, a Democrat, has also said she supports the bill being offered by Cardone and Warren.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 200 million women globally have been subjected to varying degrees of mutilation. The practice provides no health benefit and leads to life-long complications and pain, according to the WHO, which estimates the practice is most prevalent in about 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The practice of female genital mutilation is already prohibited under federal and state law, although supporters claim elevating the practice to its own felony offense would give state prosecutors an additional tool.

However, opponents said passing a bill could backfire by causing isolation or fear among Maine immigrants, especially if they were victims of female genital mutilation in their home countries.

Azizah Y. al-Hibri, a professor emerita at University of Richmond School of Law and the chairwoman of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, said the practice has been wrongly linked to the religion of Islam by groups like ACT for American, but it is an ancient cultural practice not a religious one.

Al-Hibri said she could assert, “unequivocally that FGM is not an Islamic mandate or requirement, as has been rumored. In fact, I did not even know about FGM until I came to the U.S. because it was not practiced in Lebanon, where I came from, and surrounding Muslim countries.”

Al-Hibri questioned what the real motive was for trying to link the practice to a specific religion.

Tuesday is International Day for Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, a day sponsored by the United Nations to draw awareness to the issue.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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