(To read part I, click here.)
On February 23rd, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing on contraception coverage in response to a February 16th hearing held by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee entitled, ""Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?", (see here and here). Sandra Fluke, a third year student at Georgetown Law School and former president of Georgetown Students for Reproductive Justice, had been rejected by Rep. Issa as a witness for the controversial "Lines Crossed" hearing. Thus, she was invited by the House Steering and Policy Committee to speak at their February 23rd hearing.
At the 17:26 mark of the hearing video, Fluke explained why the cost of contraceptives makes contraception coverage is so important for university students.
"Without insurance coverage, contraception as you know can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that's practically an entire summer's salary. Forty percent of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggled financially as a result of this policy."Fluke argued that women's health clinics alone cannot meet women's demand for contraceptives, especially in the face of clinic closures and threats to funding. She had this to say at the 18:27 mark.
"Some might respond that contraception is accessible in lots of other ways. Unfortunately, that's just not true. Women's health clinics provide a vital medical service, but as the Guttmacher Institute has definitely documented, these clinics are unable to meet the crushing demand fop these services. Clinics are closing, and women are being forced to go without the medical care they need. How can Congress consider the Fortenbery, Rubio, and Blunt legislation that would allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage, and then respond that the non-profit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis, particularly when so many legislators are attempting to defund those very same clinics?"Fluke criticized proposed legislation that would allow institutions to restrict contraception coverage, even those with exemptions for non-contraceptive use of birth control pills. At the 20:06 mark, she argued that such legislation would be a way to police women's bodies and ignore their health concerns.
"When you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose are not, a woman's health takes a backseat to a a bureaucracy focused on policing her body."To illustrate the consequences of contraceptive coverage restrictions in real life, Fluke recounted the story of a friend suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome. Because her friend's school would not cover birth control pills to treat the condition, her friend paid for the pills out of pocket until she couldn't afford them anymore. Without medication, her friend ended up in the emergency room, wracked with pain after a tennis ball-sized cyst had formed on her ovary. The whole ovary had to be removed, and now the friend is experiencing symptoms of early menopause at 32 years of age. If early menopause takes place, she will be unable to bear children. In short, Fluke argued that when institutions refuse to cover contraception, they send the message that "a woman's reproductive health care isn't a necessity, isn't a priority."
Finally, at the 24:32 mark of her testimony, Fluke rebutted commentators who suggest that women should endure the consequences of enrolling at religious schools. Women should not be forced to choose between their health care and their education, she insisted.
"In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking, what did we expect when we enrolled at a Catholic school? We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally, to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success. We expected that our schools would live up to the Jesuit creed of cura personalis, to care for the whole person by meeting all of our medical needs. We expected that when we told our universities of the problems this policy created for us as students, they would help us. We expected that when 94% of students opposed the policy, the university would respect our choices regarding insurance students pay for, completely unsubsidized by the university. We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere, and even if that meant going to a less prestigious university. We refuse to pick between a quality education and our health, and we resent that in the 21st century, anyone thinks it's acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women."I'm pleased that Sandra Fluke received the opportunity to speak publicly about the importance of contraception coverage, and in doing so speak for millions of people across the country. Her testimony was a much-needed counterbalance to the witnesses who testified on February 16th, who fixated on religious liberty to the exclusion of women's reproductive rights. As Fluke keenly observed, much is at stake in the struggle for reproductive justice, including women's bodily autonomy, health, and quality of life. Praise is due to Reps. Pelosi, Cummings, Maloney, Holmes Norton, and all those who pushed for Fluke to have her say.
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Predictably, right-wing commentators publicly slammed Fluke, seemingly oblivious to her actual message. Eric Bolling, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Janet Mefferd ridiculed Fluke, calling her everything from "entitled" to a "plant." Controversy truly erupted, however, when Rush Limbaugh launched a hateful tirade against Fluke.
On the February 29th edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Limbaugh called Fluke a "prostitute" and a "slut," telling his audience, "she's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception." Limbaugh spewed venom at Fluke for days, branding her an "anti-Catholic plant," accusing her of promiscuity, and telling her to have less sex if she couldn't afford contraception. (In light of his extracurricular activities in the Dominican Republic, Limbaugh is one to talk.) Limbaugh's denigration of Fluke was juvenile, misogynist, and hateful. It added nothing to the public discourse, nor was it funny or clever.
While some right-wing commentators defended Limbaugh, many thought his attacks on Fluke were unacceptable. According to Media Matters, multiple lawmakers and commentators, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Sen. Scott Brown, David Frum, Kathleen Parker, and many others condemned Limbaugh for his tasteless comments. The Washington Post reports that on March 2nd, Georgetown University president John J. DeGioia sent an e-mail to everyone on the Georgetown campus, defending Fluke's "right to respectful free expression." and condeming Limbaugh's attacks as "misogynistic" and "vitriolic." The Telegraph reports that President Barack Obama personally called Fluke and offered her encouragement. According to Freak Out Nation, even Anonymous has jumped in, targeting Limbaugh for "doxing."
Fluke herself has handled the attacks with grace. The Huffington Post reports that on the March 1st edition of MSNBC's The Ed Show, Fluke said that "this is historically the kind of language that is used to silence women." I doubt that an activist as devoted as Sandra Fluke will be silenced any time soon.
Public disapproval made an impact. According to ABC News, Limbaugh apologized on March 3rd for his "insulting word choices," insisting that he did not intend "a personal attack" on Fluke. Riiiiiight . . .
I regret that Sandra Fluke's important testimony was overshadowed by Rush Limbaugh's vitriol. His childish antics are a reminder that women who challenge the patriarchy often face misogynist, sexualized attacks. Sexist men who feel threatened by women's reproductive autonomy will often try to reassert patriarchal values by humiliating women. Limbaugh is one man who didn't succeed. Fluke and many others like her will continue the struggle for reproductive justice, and it will take far more than Religious Right rhetoric and childish name-calling to slow them down.
To watch a video of the hearing, visit this C-SPAN link. To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Religion Dispatches: Issa on Fluke: B-b-b-but People of Faith!
Christian Science Monitor: Will Sandra Fluke sue Rush Limbaugh for calling her ‘a slut’?
Media Matters: "Slut": The Voice Of A Right-Wing Bully
Politics Plus: Responding to Rush
Infidel753: Limbaugh and Fluke
Whatever Works: Remember Rush and the Viagra and the cops?
Gothic Atheist: Rush Limbaugh Calls Sandra Fluke a Prostitute
Freak Out Nation: Media Whore Rush Limbaugh about to fade into Insignificance as Advertisers back out