Image: via AP

A U.S. district judge in Michigan has ruled against a federal ban on female genital mutilation, arguing that Congress overstepped its constitutional authority in passing the 1996 law.

According to the New York Times, Judge Bernard Friedman ruled on Tuesday that Congress had violated the commerce clause of the Constitution by enacting the ban, and that only individual states have the constitutional power to outlaw female genital mutilation. He wrote in his ruling that “[a]s despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault,” and “’local criminal activity’” and therefore outside of federal regulation.

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Friedman’s ruling came about in a case against Jumana Nagarwala, a doctor from outside of Detroit who is accused of cutting the genitals of nine girls ages 7 to 13. Another doctor, internist Fakhruddin Attar, was also implicated in the case, as were four parents who allegedly brought their daughters to Nagarwala to be cut. Friedman’s ruling dismissed the main charges against Nagarwala.

There are 27 states with laws banning female genital mutilation; 23 states do not have laws criminalizing the practice, leaving tens of thousands of women vulnerable without the federal ban.

Shelby Quast, American director of global women’s rights group Equality Now, railed against the ruling. “I have had numerous calls from survivors’ groups with people in tears,” she told the Guardian. “The message to women and girls is that, when survivors are finally coming forward, sharing their stories, they are being completely disregarded.”

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Quast added, “While the rest of the world is moving forwards on FGM, the U.S. is moving backwards.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 513,000 women nationwide have either been subject to female genital mutilation or are at risk of it. At least 59 countries across the globe have banned female genital mutilation, and it has been deemed a human rights violation by the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates the practice has affected more than 200 million girls and women alive today.