AUGUSTA — There are parts of the world where it has long been common for adult women to slice away girls’ genital tissue with a sharp blade in a bid to dampen their sexual desires.

Though Maine is a long way from anywhere this has traditionally been a problem, a battle is raging among lawmakers about whether the state ought to have a law specifically barring female genital mutilation.

The operation to slice off all or part of a woman’s clitoris and labia is prohibited under federal law and is almost certainly banned by existing, broader Maine statutes. In addition, there is no solid evidence that female circumcision is happening in Maine.

One provision in a bill legislators are eyeing would also make it a felony to take a girl outside Maine to have someone cut her genital tissue without a medical reason, which is already illegal under federal law.

Safiya Khalid, a Somali-American from Lewiston who serves on the city’s library board, said Friday that “old school” women in her community “wouldn’t risk” having the procedure done on a child in Maine, but some might take their daughters back to Africa for it. She doesn’t know anyone who’s had it done, she said, but she thinks it probably has occurred.

“It’s a horrible experience,” Khalid said, typically done without anesthesia. “It’s just terrible.”

There is an international consensus that it’s an unacceptable practice that needs to be stamped out and major efforts are underway to convince people to stop it in the 29 countries where it is common.

The debate over the proposed state law is producing extraordinarily heated rhetoric. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, which has listened to the arguments about the measure, plans to discuss it Monday. Lawmakers killed a similar proposal last year.

For Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, the issue is “a no-brainer,” he said. “As a state, we need to do everything we can to protect young children from this barbaric act on our soil. It is child abuse, plain and simple.”

Those opposed to the bill said it’s not only unnecessary, it may be counterproductive. They said it would hurt women and girls, not help them.

Critics of the proposal see it as a thinly disguised attack on African immigrants, especially Somalis who hail from an area where female genital mutilation is widespread, basically a swath from Somalia on the east coast of Africa to Sierra Leone on the west, an area that includes Muslims, Christians and animists.

There is an “insidious assumption that members of Maine’s Somali community support this harmful practice,” Maine Family Planning’s Kate Brogan told lawmakers.

A 2017 survey of the immigrant community in Maine by Partnerships for Health found that 71 percent think the practice is harmful and 82 percent believe it shouldn’t happen.

The issue has particular resonance in the Lewiston-Auburn area given the influx of immigrants in the past two decades from countries where the practice is common. About 7,500 East Africans have moved to Androscoggin County and another 5,000 to Cumberland County in that time, according to the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine.

Some of the women and girls who moved to Maine underwent the illegal procedure in their home countries, though specifics are hard to come by. Khalid said she knows “a lot of friends and people who had it done” to them before coming to America.

The survey found most Maine physicians have rarely seen signs of it, but some in Lewiston and Portland reported that up to one in four of their patients had undergone the procedure, apparently before coming to the United States. It found no indication that female patients were circumcised in the United States.

Supporters of the measure, pushed in part by an anti-Muslim hate group, said girls need protection.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, and co-sponsored by Mason, would make it a crime for anyone to circumcise a girl in Maine or bring a girl anywhere else to do it except in the rare circumstance that a physician performs the operation to protect a girl’s health.

Attorney General Janet Mills said prosecutors can already bring charges of child abuse or aggravated assault, felonies that could land a person in prison for years.

The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the proposed law is pointless.

Walter McKee, chairman of its legislative committee, told legislators there is “no question that the crime of aggravated assault encompasses the very conduct in the proposed, brand-new statute here. There is no reason to add a new law to deal with more narrow conduct.”

“Muddying the waters by allowing this new statute to be placed in the criminal code would be unnecessary and unwise,” McKee said.

In the 26 states that have adopted legislation that specifically singles out female genital mutilation as a crime, all adopted after the federal government made it a felony in 1996, it doesn’t appear there has been a single prosecution under any of those state statutes.

The FBI said that two Southern Californians pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges related to a plot to allegedly perform the mutilation on two children. The following year, the FBI said, an Ethiopian man living in Georgia was convicted on charges of aggravated battery and cruelty to children for performing it on his 2-year-old daughter.

There is also a case, brought last year in Michigan, against two doctors and another adult involved in performing the illegal procedure on two 7-year-old girls, according to CNN. Their criminal case is still pending.

Khalid said that even if somebody wanted to have the procedure done in Maine, she can’t see how it could occur. They typically have an older woman do the cutting while a child is held down by four other women, she said.

Finding a woman willing to participate in this country strikes Khalid as extremely unlikely.

“Where are they going to find the lady who does it?” Khalid asked. She said nobody would take that risk because everyone knows it is illegal — and hard to conceal.

Girls who have been cut, she said, spend “days and days and months” walking peculiarly, she said, to minimize the pain and impact. Plus, she said, schools and others would probably find out through everyday observation.

The World Health Organization says that more than 200 million girls and women who are alive today have been cut in various ways in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Typically, the WHO says, it is performed on girls between infancy and age 15, usually carried out by traditional circumcisors. Though many of the victims are Muslims, experts say the practice has no religious basis. It is common, for example, in mostly Christian Ethiopia.

The procedure “has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways,” the international health agency says. “It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.”

Some worry the focus on the issue may cause women circumcised as girls in other lands to steer clear of physicians.

Brogan said that her organization, a sexual and reproductive health care provider, is “very concerned about legislation that could potentially deter Somali youth and women from accessing vital women’s health care services.”

“If we create an environment where simply walking through the doors of a health center can bring law enforcement and criminal justice engagement to the family and community, we guarantee that those affected by (female genital mutilation) will avoid needed medical care,” said Evelyn deFrees, policy advocate for the Maine Women’s Lobby.

“This is not just conjecture,” she told legislators. “Survivors of child sexual abuse routinely engage in unexpected behaviors in order to protect the parents and family members who provide their care, even if those individuals are also abusers or aware of the abuse.”

DeFrees said that if officials “truly want to support survivors of FGM, we will make it easier to access health care, reproductive care, and mental health care. When we erode those relationships — which criminalization of parents will do — we make it harder for survivors to receive the care they need.”

In much of the push for the proposal there is an assumption that the practice is happening in Maine.

For example, Gov. Paul LePage said in a radio address last month that a federal grant for an education program about the practice “has not stopped the mutilation of children” and insisted “we must be able to prosecute.”

But the attorney’s general office and the Department of Health and Human Services say they haven’t ever received a report that girls have been subjected to the practice in Maine.

Nonetheless, the governor, pointing out that other states have passed specific laws, warned that Maine should follow suit so it won’t become “a hub for female genital mutilation procedures.”

LePage did not explain how Maine could become a hub for those practicing the already illegal circumcision of women.

Even compared to the heated rhetoric that has often surrounded the issue in Augusta, a news release this week from the Maine Republican Party stood out.

In it, the GOP’s state chairwoman, Demi Kouzounas, begged opponents of the proposed law to “put politics aside for once and stand for our girls. Let’s protect our daughters.”

She accused the Maine People’s Alliance — described by the Republicans as an “extremist, socialist nonprofit arm of the Maine Democratic Party” — of betraying women with its testimony against the bill.

Kouzounas said critics of the measure “turn a blind eye” because “it’s a young girl’s private area.”

“This practice is horrific and torturous, and I’m ashamed that anyone would defend it — especially any woman. It’s barbaric!” she said. “It is unconscionable that extremist organizations can promote safe spaces for people’s feelings while opposing safe spaces for our daughters from razor blades.”

Kouzounas’ comments don’t reflect the testimony given to the committee recently by the MPA’s legislative director, Taryn Hallweaver.

Hallweaver told the panel that “female genital mutilation is a practice that violates fundamental human rights.”

She focused her words, however, on her concern that the measure targets a problem that may not exist in Maine for the purpose of slurring Muslim immigrants, not helping them.

She pointed out that the United Nations Children’s Fund has warned the success in the international effort to stamp out female genital mutilation by 2030 seeks to do so through education and empowering victims.

Hallweaver said the legislation ought to include prevention and education measures, including language to combat discrimination against women, girls and immigrants.

Nowhere in her testimony did Hallweaver defend the practice.

Jennifer Jones of Falmouth called for legislators to shelve Sirocki’s bill. She said it serves merely to divide people.

“lt denigrates a certain population of citizens and by extension, it demeans all of us,” Jones told legislators. “It inflames racial tensions. It leads to racial stereotypes that are incorrect. It is unnecessary. It is causing further fear and trauma to a group of people who have been repeatedly targeted and vilified.”

But Beverly Cowan of Rockland had a different take.

“We must have protections in place for the people who are trying to escape torture in their homeland,” she said. “Instead, they have come here and faced the same problems that they left behind in the name of multiculturalism. In cases of FGM, we need to protect children from their parents.”

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Boko Mohammed, a former excisor, a practitioner who performs female genital mutilation, holds the tool she used to perform the procedure. She attended a community meeting in Ethiopia during a session organized by UNICEF to help combat FGM. (Katie Holt/UNICEF used with permission © UNICEF/UNI77840/Holt)

A 2013 map from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund   shows the prevalence of female genital mutilation in countries where it is common.

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