A Judge’s Ruling on Female Genital Mutilation

Charges related to female genital mutilation were dismissed last week against Detroit doctor Jumana Nagarwala, who has a history of performing such “surgeries.”  Federal District Judge Bernard Friedman, of the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled that Congress had overstepped its authority in passing a law banning this FGM.

Sadly, the judge was right.  That law, passed in 1996, was done under our Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce (along with trade with foreign nations and with the Indian Tribes).

However, Friedman wrote,

That clause permits Congress to regulate activity that is commercial or economic in nature and that substantially affects interstate commerce either directly or as part of an interstate market that has such an effect. … There is nothing commercial or economic about FGM.  As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault…. Nor has the government shown that FGM itself has any effect on interstate commerce or that a market exists for FGM beyond the mothers of the nine victims alleged….  There is, in short, no rational basis to conclude that FGM has any effect, to say nothing of a substantial effect, on interstate commerce.

The law as passed is plainly unconstitutional.  But why not allow the law to stand, anyway, given its attempt to bar [a]s despicable [a] practice as FGM?  Because, as Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote 100 years ago in the Child Labor Tax Case,

The good sought in unconstitutional legislation is an insidious feature because it leads citizens and legislators of good purpose to promote it without thought of the serious breach it will make in the ark of our covenant or the harm which will come from breaking down recognized standards.

As Friedman noted, seemingly in consistence with Taft, in his 21st century opinion,

As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse of girls may be…federalism concerns deprive Congress of the power to enact this statute.


FGM is “local criminal activity” which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.

Here, though, Friedman has understated the case.  This is a Federal concern, and it is within the scope of Congressional authority to address FGM.

Congress must repass this law—though why it chose the Commerce Clause as the underpinning is beyond me—and it must address Friedman’s Federalism concerns.  One obvious path is that the protection of all Americans collectively and the liberties of each American individually are the role of the Federal government; some protections cannot be left to the individual States to effect—or to choose not to effect.  This is why free speech and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, protections against excessive searches—indeed, the entirety of our Bill of Rights—are Federal concerns, with only the means of implementing them left to the States.

Certainly, there needs to be a limit on what is considered a Federal crime (or civil prohibition or requirement)—even murder is a State crime and not a Federal one, as it should be.

But surely our inalienable right to the pursuit of Happiness, which John Adams explained so eloquently carries within it the rights of personal property and of personal security, is a Federal concern, not a matter to be left, federalistically, to the States.  That property right necessarily includes the property every individual has in his own person, and that security right necessarily includes the safety of that property in person (and more generally, the safety of the person himself), especially.  This was acknowledged overtly when we fought—and won—a civil war over slavery.

It must be the case, too, that that property and that security must include control over what is done with any part of an individual’s body and who permits the doing or refuses it, and FGM can and must be as protected against as the evil of enslaving the whole of an individual’s body or mind.

Accordingly, Congress must repass this law, or something very like it, but it ought to be passed under 5th Amendment’s due process clause

nor shall any person…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

and under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause

…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

And that due process plainly allows a Congressional bar against clitorectomy/female genital mutilation.

That won’t put Nagarwala back on the hook for her past practices of mutilation—criminal laws that are retroactive are anathema to liberty—but it will allow for criminal prosecution and jailing of future such butcheries.


Friedman’s ruling can be read here.

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