A political action committee has been created and signature gathering is expected to begin soon for a proposed statewide vote on a measure that would establish female genital mutilation as a Class A felony in Maine. Credit: Micky Bedell

AUGUSTA, Maine — Conservatives backing a bill to ban female genital mutilation in Maine — including the outgoing state Senate majority leader — have launched a bid to put the issue that has been much-debated in the Legislature to voters in a June 2019 referendum.

The cultural practice that involves cutting or removing a girl’s external genitals — usually between infancy and age 15 — is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, yet it has affected 200 million women in 30 African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Female genital mutilation is already federally illegal in the United States, and 26 states have outlawed it, according to the Associated Press. It isn’t banned explicitly in Maine, where dueling proposals to do that died amid a partisan battle in the Legislature earlier this year.

Backers took their first steps toward a referendum on the issue by creating a political action committee Wednesday that will raise money to support the initiative and then filing draft language for the proposed law with the Maine secretary of state’s office Thursday.

It would make performing female genital mutilation or allowing it to be performed on girls younger than 18 a Class A felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Mandated reporters would face a misdemeanor for knowingly failing to report a case. The bill would also direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to do outreach on the issue.

The effort is being led by Ben Trundy, a Republican operative who most recently served as political director for Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason’s failed Republican gubernatorial campaign. Mason and his father, state Rep. Rick Mason, both of Lisbon Falls, signed onto the push as two of five Maine voters who must sponsor citizen initiatives.

Trundy said the group hopes to finish gathering signatures by year’s end to get the question on the ballot in June 2019. Now, referendums need just over 61,000 signatures to make the ballot.

Maine prosecutors have said that it would be difficult to charge someone for female genital mutilation under current law. It’s unclear how prevalent the practice is here. Since the 2000s, the state has seen an influx of immigrants from African countries, including Somalia, where UNICEF has said up to 98 percent of women have been affected.

A 2017 survey of Maine immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries conducted by Partnerships for Health found that 70.5 percent deemed female genital mutilation harmful, saying men between the ages of 18 to 35 were more likely than older men to believe “cultural myths” around it.

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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...