Concerns in the Wyoming Senate over gender reassignment surgeries threaten an effort to criminalize female genital mutilation that soared through the House.
Protecting girls and women from FGM has widespread bipartisan backing among lawmakers. Legislating transgender medical care does not. And a clause in the bill dealing with sex reassignment surgery now threatens to drive a wedge between disparate groups that agree they want to ban a violation of women’s rights.
The bill passed through the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday morning even as both sides expressed concern. If further contention is going to arise it will likely happen during Senate floor debate. One sponsor of the bill, Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), said she would pull her name off the legislation if it turns into a debate over transgender issues.
Ellis wants to ban FGM, she said. “For that very narrow reason I signed on to this bill,” she told the committee.
House Bill 127 – Prohibition of female genital mutilation is an effort brought by conservative Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell). The bill criminalizes female genital mutilation — a cultural practice some refugees and immigrants of Africa and the Middle East have carried into the United States — as aggravated assault and battery.
The bill defines FGM as partially or completely removing the clitoris, closing the vaginal opening and other harmful procedures. The World Health Organization finds that more than 200 million women worldwide have suffered from the practice, which it labels a human rights violation.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes,” the organization’s website reads, “and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”
It’s not clear how prevalent the practice is in Wyoming, which has low rates of immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Laursen used a CDC analysis to estimate that more than 400-600 women in Wyoming could be vulnerable to female genital mutilation, but told WyoFile he did not know how accurate the estimate might be.
The practice is “hidden,” Laursen said, “so you don’t really know.”
In addition to the criminal provisions, the bill would allow a victim to bring a civil suit against her mutilators even years after the act occurred. The bill would also spark a state-level education campaign about the practice.
At least 32 states have passed laws to ban the practice after a judge overturned federal statutes and handed the power of regulating the practice to states. Laursen learned about FGM, and legislative efforts to counter it, at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council over the summer, he said. ALEC is a national organization funded by corporate and conservative donors that is known for pushing model bills out to state legislatures.
In this case, some parties that might normally have opposed ALEC bills aligned with Laursen to ban a barbaric practice against women. The bill sponsor list aligns House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) with some of the House’s most conservative Republicans; it passed the House on its final vote without opposition.
But now, as the bill moves through the Senate, one clause worries LGBTQ advocates and threatens to push the issue into the politically contentious realm of transgender rights. The bill includes several exemptions from what might be considered female genital mutilation. One is for procedures that a doctor considers “medically necessary.” Another applies to elective “body art procedures or piercings” on someone over 18 years old.
A third exception has driven the controversy. A sex reassignment surgery would not be considered female genital mutilation “if the person on whom it is performed is over eighteen (18) years of age and requests and consents to the procedure,” the bill reads.
People who otherwise support the bill worry the clause might limit the access of transgender youth to medical care. It’s rare for a doctor to allow someone under 18 to undergo gender reassignment surgeries in any case, both sides of the issue said. However, opponents said other medical procedures could run afoul of the proposed law.
Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) described the case of a girl born with undescended testes discovered at puberty. The testes were removed. The bill could penalize the doctor in such a case, she argued.
Laursen did not seek to legislate on transgender issues either, he argued. “That’s not what the bill came for,” he said. But the clause was important to him, he said.
Bills that outlaw female genital mutilation in other states do not include such language, Tara Muir, the policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told WyoFile. “Wyoming can not be the first state with such draconian limits on transgender people,” Muir said.
In testimony before the Senate committee, Burlingame asked the committee to remove the clause about sex reassignment surgeries. “I would really urge folks to not bog this bill down with something that’s going to stop it in its tracks,” Burlingame said. “We don’t need it, we can take out [the controversial clause], we can have a clean bill and we can do something that protects the integrity of Wyoming youth.”
Those supporting the bill but wary of the clause are trying to sort out its implications, Muir told WyoFile. They had not seen the bill before the hectic legislative session began, she said. “We were still trying to do research,” she said. “We love having a citizen legislature, but it’s not always the best process for a well-thought-out understanding of what Wyoming people face.”
An amendment to the bill proposed by Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Chairman Charles Scott (R-Casper) confused the issue further. Scott’s amendment expanded the definition of “female genital mutilation” to include sex reassignment surgery on someone under 18 years old, whether “female to male or male to female.”
The amendment was needed to make the bill apply constitutionally to both sexes, Scott argued. But Cara Chambers, director of the victim services unit of the Wyoming Attorney General’s office, said her agency had reviewed the bill and did not see any constitutional issues.
“Most states are silent” on sex reassignment surgery in bills banning female genital mutilation, Chambers said: “They realize that conflating the two issues is problematic.”
Scott dropped his amendment for the time being, saying he was going to reconsider its necessity and wording. The committee then voted unanimously to advance the bill to the Senate floor.
Laursen, who introduced the bill, asked for a chance to speak again to the committee after they took public comment and before they voted on the bill. Scott did not grant the request, citing time constraints.
“Wow,” Laursen said, leaving the room as the committee began to vote.
Back in the House lobby, he told WyoFile that if the controversial clause is removed, he will fight to restore it when the bill returns to his chamber for a vote of concurrence with the Senate’s changes.
“I think it protects people,” he said. “It just says that if you’re not 18 you can’t make that decision.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.