Sandra Fluke doesn’t back down.
After Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) refused to let the 30-year-old Georgetown University law student testify during a hearing on mandatory contraception coverage for women, she saved her remarks for a more welcoming hearing sponsored by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She joined forces with other women to discuss the importance of birth control during an event in Washington, DC. And when conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh lambasted her, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” Fluke promised that she and millions of other American women “will not be silenced” by such attacks.
“I’m an American woman who uses contraception,” Fluke said during a recent event. “That makes me qualified to talk to my elected officials about my health-care needs.”
What’s troubling is that Fluke’s ordeal isn’t out of the ordinary in light of recent waves of sexist and invasive pieces of legislation being debated in statehouses across the country. From efforts to near-eliminate all forms of birth control to bills that would require “transvaginal ultrasounds” before abortions, women’s rights have been under attack in a slew of states and in the U.S. Captiol.
“The thing that makes me angry is that whenever there’s a trade to be made, it’s always women’s health,” top American Association of University Women policy advisor Lisa Maatz said during a recent event on the contraceptive issue. “For whatever reason, up until now, politicians have felt like this is where they could cave.”
Several themes have emerged from this event, Fluke’s testimony, and other hearings: That women of all parties and faiths care about birth control, and they are willing to vote on it. That religious liberty goes both ways. And that women’s health is under serious political attack.
Fluke said that she had hoped to broaden the conversation to women’s health in general though her testimony, instead of just focusing on contraception. “There are so many areas of women’s health that are under attack politically and in our legislatures, or just woefully underfunded and inaccessible,” she said.
Take Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against cervical cancer, as an example: It costs $500 out of pocket, which Fluke said most college students simply can’t afford. Then there was the story Fluke shared about a married women with a newborn baby whose doctor recommended she use birth control because becoming pregnant too soon would be medically problematic for both her and a future baby. Her husband works at a religiously affiliated school, so his insurance doesn’t cover contraception, and she was forced to pay for the contraception herself.
“How can you say this is not a deserving situation?” Fluke said. “This person is doing everything she is being asked to do. She’s married, she’s in her 30s, she is procreating. Her needs are being interfered with by this policy.”
Under a compromise provided by the White House, the insurance companies—not the religiously affiliated workplaces—will be required to foot the cost of contraceptives.
“Just as we students have faced financial, emotional, and medical burdens as a result, employees at religiously affiliated hospitals and universities across the country have suffered similar burdens,” Fluke said.
Issa cited freedom of religion as a core tenet of the original hearing, which he used to justify his first panel comprised entirely of men. (In response to that panel, Pelosi said her office heard from more than 300,000 people who asked that women’s voices be represented. Pelosi jokingly thanked Issa for his insensitivity, “because it’s been very hard over the years to convince people that the fight here has been about contraception.”)
Faith has played a major role in the contraceptive debate. And while Catholic doctrine may be driving the national debate about birth control coverage, plenty of Catholics say they’re loath to see medical coverage denied in their name.
“We are not willing to concede the religious freedom argument,” said Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice, who the praised the final policy. “This particular policy doesn’t force anyone to use contraception. It doesn’t stop bishops or priests or school administrators or anyone from preaching a ban on contraception. It simply allows those who by their own conscience decide to use contraception the access to it.”
Fluke called on a strong Catholic tradition to “care for the whole person.” And “denying women access to affordable basic health care is not care for the whole person,” she said.
The hearing held by the Pelosi and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee had a female-heavy presence, a sharp contrast to Issa’s all-male starting panel. Cummings, the only male at the hearing, said: “I am obviously not a woman so I can never understand how important this is to women’s lives across the country.”
During the Pelosi-sponsored hearing, Fluke, the sole witness, shared stories of her friends’ struggles to have affordable access to contraceptives—students who were either shamed at pharmacies or forced to undergo invasive surgical procedures to treat serious illnesses like polycystic ovarian syndrome, all because they were denied contraception coverage.
Georgetown Law, a Jesuit institution, does not currently provide contraception coverage in its student health plan, which can cost a woman more than $3,000 during her time in law school, Fluke said.
Fluke said women should “refuse to pick between a quality education and our health,” in response to some Catholic organizations that continue to push to retain more control over their student’s bodies.
“We resent that, in the 21st Century, anyone thinks it's acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women,” she testified.
Fluke and other women’s rights activists have used the Issa snub and Limbaugh debacle to encourage others to become active on the issue that before may have been bogged down by “abstract” battles such as Title X and Planned Parenthood funding. What all women can get angry about, Maatz said, are hot-button issues like birth control coverage. The Komen Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood, for instance, caused a “firestorm” of rage among women and as a result was ultimately reversed.
“People understand pink ribbons, and people understand birth control,” Maatz said, noting that supporting birth control is one way many women break with their families or their faith at the ballot box.
Fluke emphasized the need for supporting the next generation of activists.
“This is the moment of a national media, and all of us turning and realizing how much activism is going on [at] campuses, and that students are concerned about these issues and care,” she said. “Talk to people who disagree with you. Social media makes us not the silent majority anymore.”