AUGUSTA — House lawmakers voted narrowly on Tuesday to create an education and outreach program aimed at stopping “female genital mutilation” in immigrant communities but stopped short of giving prosecutors additional tools against the practice.

After a lengthy and emotional debate, the House voted 76-71 against creating a new crime of “female genital mutilation” – on top of existing federal and state prohibitions – for a procedure estimated by the United Nations to have been performed on at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries. Instead, House Democrats supported a version that directs the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to establish outreach and education programs featuring “culturally specific services for communities in the state wherein which female genital mutilation of minors might be practiced.”

The debate over the bill, L.D. 745, was not whether the practice happens worldwide but rather whether it is occurring in Maine, particularly inside the state’s growing communities of African immigrants.

“I do not believe that it is happening in the state of Maine. I truly do not believe that,” said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland. “And I believe if it was happening, it would be prosecuted vigorously by the federal (laws) or by the abuse statutes in this state.”

But Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, said that since introducing the bill she has heard from numerous people in Maine – including some in the medical field – with personal stories about seeing female genital mutilation.

The Maine DHHS recently issued guidelines clarifying that all “mandatory reporters” of child abuse – such as doctors, child care providers or teachers –must report suspected incidents of the practice, which is often called FGM. Yet Sirocki pointed out that the Maine Prosecutors Association, representing district attorneys in the state, supported elevating the practice to its own felony crime because some prosecutors question whether it is “aggravated assault when the parents and the children consent.”

“I think this illustrates clearly that we need to have clear law in Maine on this issue,” Sirocki said.

Female genital mutilation refers to a procedure that is performed – typically on an infant or young girl – to cut or remove parts of the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes. The World Health Organization says that the procedure not only has no health benefits for girls or women but can often result in immediate and lifelong medical problems as well as psychological harm. The practice is considered an international human rights violation and a form of discrimination against women.

The practice has been illegal under federal law for two decades, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that the first federal cases were filed against doctors in Michigan accused of carrying out the practice. Like bills introduced in other states, Sirocki’s original proposal would have allowed both the parents or guardians of a mutilation victim as well as the person carrying out the procedure to be charged with felony offenses.

Advocates for Maine’s immigrant communities testified last month that they support efforts to end FGM but expressed concerns that the bill could backfire by causing isolation or fear among immigrants, especially if they were victims of FGM in their home countries. Others testified that the creation of a new crime was unnecessary because the practice is already specifically barred under federal law and falls under Maine’s “aggravated assault” law.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, introduced the amendment to change the bill to require outreach and education programs aimed at communities in Maine where FGM “might be practiced.” Those programs would include support networks for victims of the practice as well as “culturally sensitive professional training.”

“We all share the same goal, and our shared goal is we don’t want female genital mutilation to happen,” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who noted Talbot Ross’s amendment had the support of national policy groups, victims advocates and the immigrant community.

But other lawmakers said Maine needs to elevate the practice to its own felony offense to give state prosecutors an additional tool.

“What we need to do today is send a strong message that Maine is not going to tolerate this practice on young girls,” said Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon. “Besides all of the physical problems, girls are also psychologically affected for the rest of their lives.”

The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate for consideration.