Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon repeatedly killed bills to outlaw female genital mutilation during her tenure as the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
Gideon leveraged her leadership position in the Democrat-controlled legislature to kill two separate bills that would have criminalized the practice of severing the clitoris of infant girls and sewing their vaginas shut. Instead, the Democrat supported a different law that would have funnelled $150,000 to her political allies to educate Mainers about the practice instead of criminalizing it, according to a former state legislator who spearheaded the push to stop the mutilation.
Under Gideon's leadership, Maine Democrats argued that the bill was racist toward the state's large immigrant community from Somalia, a country where the practice is "nearly universal" according to the United Nations. The Democrats also argued that the practice rarely takes place in Maine and is already outlawed by existing federal and local laws.
Gideon's efforts have helped make Maine one of only 12 states that have not banned female genital mutilation. Such a legacy threatens to complicate her cultivated image as a champion of women's rights, one built on her consistent support for abortion access and the #MeToo movement. The image strategy has paid off, translating into hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and outside money support from national pro-abortion groups. Gideon did not respond to a request for comment.
F. A. Cole, a survivor of female genital mutilation who testified before the Maine legislature, expressed deep frustration for the bill's failure. "The Democrats, especially the Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, did everything she could in her power to just kill this bill," she told the Washington Free Beacon. "I could not understand why."
Female genital mutilation is an archaic cultural custom practiced in parts of the Middle East and Africa that the United Nations considers a violation of human rights. The procedure, which is done to discourage sex outside of marriage, causes numerous medical problems such as excessive bleeding, infections, difficulty passing urine, and sometimes death. A 2012 Public Health Reports study estimated that more than 500,000 women and girls were at risk for female genital mutilation or its consequences in the United States.
The controversy started in 2017, when Republican state legislator Heather Sirocki introduced a bill that made it a crime for parents to force their child to undergo female genital mutilation. Gideon and other Democrats initially cosponsored the bill, but soon Gideon embraced a different version of the legislation. The new version struck out all penalties for the practice and instead allocated $150,000 from the state coffers to fund educational outreach programs to educate Mainers about female genital mutilation. According to Sirocki, Democrats told her the money would go to the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, a nonprofit group run by Gideon ally Fatuma Hussein.
"This bill was designed to funnel money to Fatuma Hussein's Immigrant Resource network so they could educate the Somali community on why, ‘naughty naughty, it's bad to cut your little girl's genitals,'" Sirocki said. The nonprofit did not respond to a request for comment.
Gideon and House Democrats ultimately voted against the original version of the 2017 bill, leading to the bill's failure. To justify their votes, some Democrats argued that existing federal and local laws already prohibited the practice—even though the Maine Prosecutors' Association testified that they "do not feel confident that they can charge someone with committing Female Genital Mutilation without the passage of this bill."
Despite the setback, some Democrats and Republicans introduced a new bipartisan bill in 2018 that criminalized the practice and allocated funds for community outreach. Cole, who testified before the Maine legislature in support of the bill, recalled that Democrats relentlessly grilled her, demanding evidence that the practice is happening in Maine. While data are scant on the practice's prevalence in the state, the nonprofit AHA Foundation estimates that roughly 1,600 women and girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in the state.
Cole said the hostility displayed by Democrats during the questioning pushed her into a panic attack, forcing her to take a break. She said that as other legislators comforted her outside the committee room, Gideon briskly walked past her, avoiding eye contact. The incident, she said, was emblematic of the cold indifference she faced from Gideon and her allies.
"I couldn't even breathe—that's how bad it was," she said. "But this woman just walked on by us as if I wasn't even a human being. And that told me a lot about the type of person she is—she just doesn't care."
Gideon and nearly all of her fellow House Democrats voted against the 2018 bill, leading to its failure. Gideon's efforts to kill the bill have allowed genital mutilators a free reign in Maine, according to Elizabeth Yore, an international child-rights attorney. "Maine has become a safe harbor for mutilators of girls' genitals," she said.
Throughout the entire controversy, Democrats frequently charged that the bill is racist toward the state's Muslim and Somali populations, despite the fact that the practice takes place among Christian groups as well. Cole said that racism did play a role in the affair—in Gideon's rationale to oppose the bill.
"If these were white girls would [Gideon] have taken the same stand?… If these were white girls, believe me something would have been done in Maine," she said. "But because these are brown and black girls, who cares?"