A federal judge dismissed charges Tuesday against several Michigan doctors accused of mutilating the genitals of numerous underage girls, ruling that the federal prohibition against the practice is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman argued that the 22-year-old federal law prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM), which went unused until last year, constitutes federal overreach.
“There is nothing commercial or economic about FGM,” Friedman wrote in a 28-page opinion. “FGM is not part of a larger market and it has no demonstrated effect on interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause does not permit Congress to regulate a crime of this nature.”
Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was arrested in April 2017 and accused of leading a criminal conspiracy that involved multiple doctors and resulted in the mutilation of nine girls over the course of twelve years. The practice, which is universally recognized as a gross violation of human rights, is traditional among the Dawoodi Bohra, the Muslim sect to which Nagarwala and his co-conspirators belong.
While the judge’s ruling entirely clears four defendants in the case, including three mothers who allegedly handed their underage daughters over to Nagarwala to be mutilated, the remaining defendants still face obstruction charges.
In response to the case, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed new laws prohibiting the practice of FGM, but as those laws applied only to future violations, the defendants in this case were charged under the old federal statute. Twenty-three other states, however, do not have laws banning the practice, leading critics of the judge’s ruling to suggest that parents intent on mutilating their daughters for religious purposes will simply travel to states where they can do so legally.
“It’s a giant step backward in the protection of women’s and girls’ rights,” Shelby Quast, the Americas director of equality for the rights organization Equality Now, told the Detroit News. “Especially when there is a global movement to eliminate this practice.”
“Parents are aware of where there are laws against it and where there are not,” she said. “And they will take advantage of that.”
Prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will appeal the decision.