HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania is on track to become the 34th state to ban female genital mutilation, a cultural practice used by some ethnic groups that the Centers for Disease Control has described as a violation of women’s human rights.

There are believed to be 20,000 girls in Pennsylvania at risk for being subjected to female genital mutilation, according to the CDC.

Legislation on the way to Gov. Tom Wolf would ban the practice. Thursday, J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for the governor, said Wolf intends to sign the bill.

“I’m thrilled,” said Liz Yore, an advocate for children who leads EndFGMToday, a national campaign to outlaw the practice, traditionally employed in some Middle Eastern, Southern Asian and African cultures. According to CDC, 55 percent of the girls subjected to female genital mutilation in this country are from families that originated in three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Senate passed House Bill 315 unanimously on Wednesday. The measure passed the state House by a vote of 196-1, with only state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia voting against it. 

“This is a major victory for the women of Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Montgomery County, who authored the legislation. “I want to thank my colleagues in both the House and Senate for taking this strong and unified stand for the right to be safe from this kind of abuse. FGM is a crime of violence against women. With Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature the law will explicitly state that.”

House Bill 315 would make it a crime to cut or allow someone to circumcise or cut the genitals of a female minor. Under the bill, the practice would be a felony of the first degree.

Only 11 other states have more girls at risk of female genital mutilation than Pennsylvania — California, New York, Minnesota, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Ohio and Georgia — according to the CDC. Of those, only Washington lacks a ban on the practice, according to the AHA Foundation, a New York-based women’s rights organization founded by activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Every state surrounding Pennsylvania already has a ban on the practice in place, according to the AHA Foundation. Ohio passed a female genital mutilation ban earlier this year, according to Yore’s group.

Female genital mutilation has no medical benefit and is often performed by people with no medical training, Yore said. The practice has been illegal under federal law since 1996. Last year, though, a federal judge ruled the federal ban was unconstitutional, throwing out charges against eight people charged with subjecting at least nine girls from Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota to female genital mutilation, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that Congress lacked authority to attack the practice under the Commerce Clause because the procedure is not a commercial activity. The judge said states could step in with their own laws or prosecute the practice under sexual battery and abuse.

“No state offers refuge to those who harm children,” Friedman wrote, according to the AP.

That decision made the urgency of passing state bans all the more pressing, Yore said.

Yore said even without the state ban, as a child welfare advocate, she’d argue authorities could prosecute female genital mutilation as an assault under child abuse laws. But that doesn’t happen, making the need for specifically banning the practice important, she said.

“It’s human nature,” Yore said. “Unless it’s specified as a crime, police won’t file charges.”

There is a move to pass a new federal ban that will withstand legal challenges, but advocates believe there is still need for state bans too, she said.

It’s not uncommon for crimes to be illegal under both state and federal law, she said. In those cases, federal and state prosecutors can sort out who will file charges.

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