Female Genital Mutilation: Felony or misdemeanor?

Committee work in the Iowa House and Senate has produced differing views on what should happen to those who engage in female genital mutilation.

Legislation to prohibit the heinous practice of ‘female cutting” is advancing in the Iowa Legislature, with bills now reported out of the judiciary committees in both chambers. That’s the good news. The caveat is the bills have diverged, with the Senate bill continuing to call for felony prosecutions and the House bill reducing the offense to an aggravated misdemeanor.

Both bills have continued language to protect only juveniles from such procedures. In addition, the Legislative Services Agency has filed fiscal reports in an attempt to show the state’s cost in enacting such laws.

Senate File 346 was reported out of committee on Feb. 21, with its subsequent fiscal note arriving on Monday. It is largely unchanged from my earlier reports about such legislation. It creates a criminal offense for female genital mutilation procedures on minor girls that occur within Iowa, or when residents traffic young girls out of state for such procedures.

If passed into law, this bill would make such offenses a Class D felony, the lowest tier in Iowa. Such felonies are punishable by up to five years in prison and a minimum fine of $750. (The maximum is $7,500.)

House File 534 was placed on the chamber’s calendar Tuesday, with its fiscal note arriving the following day. Also limited to protecting only to juveniles, this bill would reduce the penalty to an aggravated misdemeanor. In Iowa, such offenses carry a possible prison sentence of up to two years, and a fine of at least $625 but not more than $6,250.

Until last fall, when a judge struck down a federal ban on such procedures as an overreach of the commerce clause, prosecutions would have taken place at the federal level, with all defendants facing felony convictions. Notes from the LSA appear to reflect this reality; as a new offense ‘the number of convictions cannot be estimated.” Instead, the LSA relies on estimates for sentencing, length of stay and supervision costs based on severity of the crime. So, the state’s average cost for one aggravated misdemeanor ranges from $4,700 to $7,500, while an average felony conviction cost is $9,200 to $14,100. In either case, such costs “would be incurred across multiple fiscal years.”

By my estimation, the value of protecting young girls from such a heinous practice is far higher.

I still believe it is in the state’s best interest to make these procedures, not undertaken for any medical benefit, a criminal offense. All neighboring states except Nebraska have done so, which creates the possibility of Iowa becoming a safe haven if lawmakers fail to act.

But I also hope Iowa legislators realize where their bills differ from the former federal prohibition. The Female Genital Mutilation Act was two-pronged in that it included education and community outreach to raise awareness.

Absent such measures, which would increase cost, all that’s left is for lawmakers to send a strong message.

Classifying a lifetime of unnecessary harm as a misdemeanor misses that mark.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 2, 2019.