AUGUSTA, Maine — A fight is brewing in the Maine Legislature on new proposals to pass a state law banning female genital mutilation, a cultural practice that violates federal law and that virtually nobody in the Western world wants to see here or elsewhere.

Yet Gov. Paul LePage has filed a bill to criminalize it, and Democrats filed a rival proposal. It may continue a partisan fight on the topic that cropped up last year, although it’s unclear how much the practice is happening in Maine.

But it’s hard to separate this debate on female genital mutilation — an internationally recognized human rights violation of women and girls — from the controversial issues of Islamophobia and immigration.

What is it? Female genital mutilation is any procedure involving partial or total removal of a woman’s external genitals. More than 200 million women in 30 African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries have undergone it though it has no health benefits and can cause death, according to the World Health Organization. It is usually done between infancy and age 15.

Many of those countries are Islamic, including Somalia, where UNICEF estimates that 98 percent of women have been cut. But mutilation is a cultural practice that isn’t limited to Islam. It has also been prevalent in Ethiopia, a majority Christian nation.

The practice is illegal federally. It’s explicitly banned in 26 states, according to the Associated Press. While it is considered child abuse by most, Maine prosecutors have said it would be hard to try a case under current law.

Many immigrants to Maine are victims of female genital mutilation. It’s less clear how frequently it’s happening here. Since the turn of the century, Maine’s population of Somali refugees has swelled to an estimated 12,000, centered in Lewiston and Portland.

Partnerships For Health, a Maine consulting group, did a survey on the issue last year. It surveyed 55 immigrant mothers, two-thirds of whom had experienced cutting in their home country. Another third hadn’t experienced it at all.

In a survey of immigrant men and women, 70.5 percent said female genital mutilation is harmful, leading researchers to conclude that while the immigrant community “as a whole” is against it, “there are still community members who tend to cling to this cultural tradition of the past.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, LePage said MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, the federal-state health program for poor people, paid out $385,000 for mutilation-related cases in 2016 and $338,000 in 2017. He said that included treatment for children injured “in Maine” as well as treatment for complications of people injured elsewhere.

But Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, a Republican who supports the LePage bill, said the only cases of mutilation that her office has run into are “hearsay,” that certain mandated reporters aren’t reporting it to authorities and that the law could “bring this crime into the light where we can prosecute it.”

An Islamophobic group has joined the Maine fight against it. The Southern Poverty Law Center published emails on Monday between the LePage bill’s sponsor, Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, and a Maine member of ACT for America, a group that SPLC has deemed “the largest anti-Muslim hate group in the United States.”

Sirocki dismissed the report on Tuesday as “typical reaction from people who disagree on this issue” and her co-sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, made clear on Tuesday that cutting is “a cultural issue, not a religious one.”

However, anti-immigrant sentiment is a motivator for some here, with hard-line Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, asking on Twitter whether this is a reason to send certain Somali Muslims home to “make Somalia great again” — a riff on President Donald Trump’s slogan.

Support for ending female genital mutilation is overwhelming. Last year, Sirocki’s bill to criminalize mutilation attracted a group of 62 bipartisan co-sponsors, including House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. But the fight over the bill broke down along party lines and it died between the chambers.

This year’s LePage-Sirocki bill would make female genital mutilation a Class A felony for someone to perform it on a minor that isn’t their child and a Class B felony for a parent. The Democratic bill would make it a Class A crime to perform it on a minor and authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to do outreach on it.

Sirocki called the Democratic effort a “typical Democrat stunt” on Tuesday and said “I would love to see us come together in unanimity on this.”

But Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the Legislature’s criminal justice committee, praised the Democratic bill for its “two-pronged approach” combining enforcement and education.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...