Why Maine is still fighting about female genital mutilation

Good morning from Augusta. A fight is brewing on new proposals to pass a state law that bans 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 nuanced topic that cropped up last year. But it’s hard to separate this debate from 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 although it has no health benefits and can cause death, according to the World Health Organization. It is illegal federally and it’s explicitly banned in 24 states, according to The Daily Beast.

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 and it’s not limited to Islam. It has also been highly prevalent in Ethiopia, which is a majority Christian nation.

Many immigrants to Maine are victims of female genital mutilation. It’s much less clear how much it’s happening here now. 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.”

An Islamophobic group has joined the 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 center has deemed “the largest anti-Muslim hate group in the United States.” Sirocki dismissed the report on Tuesday morning as “typical reaction from people who disagree on this issue.”

However, anti-immigrant sentiments are clearly 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.”

But support for ending this is unanimous. 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 it broke down along party lines and it died between the chambers.

This year’s LePage-Sirocki bill would make it 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.” She’s holding a press conference at 3:30 p.m. on her proposal today.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in this morning and here are their calendars, which remain on the light side as most of the work remains in the committee process. There are three joint resolutions in the offing today, one to deem Feb. 7 National Girls and Women in Sports Day, one to recognize February as 2-1-1 month in honor of the number you can call to access information on a number of social services, and one to support Maine cement manufacturing. These are three of several joint orders on today’s calendars.

Committees are still ushering new bills into the process, with several scheduled public hearings this afternoon. Work sessions on bills that have already had hearings could yield committee recommendations for the full Legislature. One of those involves a proposal to create all-electronic toll collections on the Maine Turnpike, another to bar potential employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history before a conditional offer of employment is made, and one to prohibit retired state employees and teachers from returning to work while collecting retirement benefits.

Reading list

  • LePage is proposing a state board to control county jails, again. The governor’s Department of Corrections has sent a report to the Legislature calling for a new Maine Jail Commission to oversee Maine’s 15 county jails — and potentially close some of them. LePage has long argued that whichever level of government is responsible for jail operations should also pay for them. Currently funding is split between the state and counties.
  • Here’s how ranked-choice voting would affect the next Maine elections. The secretary of state’s office has until March 5 to certify the 72,000 signatures submitted by proponents last week, which could set up a people’s veto referendum on the June 12 ballot to overturn a law enacted last year.
  • The state is supposed to have crafted rules on how certain organizations distribute naloxone, but it hasn’t. A law enacted without LePage’s signature in 2015 allows public health groups to distribute the drug, which is used to counteract opioid overdoses, but the Department of Health and Human Services has not yet developed rules to do so. This law differs from another law LePage’s executive branch has stalled, which allows pharmacists to dispense naloxone over the counter.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union is continuing a legal battle to require Medicaid to cover abortions in Maine. The organization has challenged a previous ruling that barred MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, from paying for most abortions. The decision was based on federal law that prohibits federal dollars from covering abortions, except in extreme circumstances. The ACLU argues that violates women’s rights.
  • L.L. Bean is implementing some austerity measures. Flattening sales in recent years have caused the Freeport-based retail giant to offer up to 900 voluntary employee buyouts and end contributions to its pension plan. Concurrently, the company says it will double its 401(k) contributions to 8 percent. Bean employs around 5,000 people.

Quack, quack

Today is National Lame Duck Day, which recognizes the Feb. 6, 1933, ratification of the 20th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment shortened from 13 months to two months the time between an election and when Congress was required to meet. [CORRECTION: In addressing concerns that lame ducks could control Congress for up to 13 months, the 20th Amendment changed the swearing-in date for new members of Congress from March 4 to Jan. 3 and made that date, not the first Monday in December, the required date for Congress to meet.]

The term “lame duck” originally applied to English stockbrokers in the 1700s, but has now come to refer to politicians serving out their final terms. It’s become a pejorative, in part because of the perception that lame ducks no longer have to answer to constituents and therefore can wreak havoc. Will Rogers summed up that concern with this quote:

“An awful lot of people are confused as to just what is meant by a lame duck Congress. It’s like where some fellows worked for you and their work wasn’t satisfactory and you let ’em out, but after you fired ’em, you let ’em stay long enough so they could burn your house down.”

Term-limit laws have greatly increased the population of lame ducks. Maine has a lame duck governor. We have a lot of lame duck legislators. They still have months to serve, but on National Lame Duck Day, we thank them for their service. And with Will Rogers in mind, we’ll be checking the batteries on the smoke alarms at the State House. Here is their soundtrack. –– Robert Long


The people’s veto effort would not repeal the delay of ranked-choice voting in gubernatorial and legislative elections, a key constitutional concern under the original law. Monday’s Daily Brief was incorrect and has been corrected.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.