Demystifying Sandra Fluke

Gwyneth Moreland

When Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student, testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about chemical contraception, she only meant to advance the cause of women’s health. Instead, she set off a major controversy that has led to Rush Limbaugh’s inflammatory radio coverage and serious misinterpretation from people across the country. Her statement came after she was denied speaking before a House Oversight Committee hearing on women’s health. The committee chairman, Darrell Issa (Rep), claimed that Democrats had submitted her name too late to be a witness.

Fluke’s testimony was about the need for contraception coverage for students and employees of religious institutions, as her own university currently provides no such plan. “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 struggle financially as a result of this policy,” said Fluke.

She went on to tell stories about fellow friends and students who had been affected by contraception coverage policies. These stories were centered on medical conditions, less so on pregnancy prevention, which is a hot button religious issue.

Fluke’s testimony has been grossly twisted in the media. Contraception has been immediately and strictly associated with preventing pregnancy; religious groups have accused her of infringing on religious freedoms and promoting sexual promiscuity. This really isn’t the case. She may have opened the question of whether insurance companies should cover contraception for pregnancy prevention, but her own focus was purely on women’s health.

Among her stories was one about a woman with polycystic ovarian syndrome, who took birth control pills to prevent cysts from growing on her ovaries. “Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown’s insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy. Unfortunately, under many religious institutions and insurance plans, it wouldn’t be,” said Fluke. “For my friend and 20 percent of the women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription. Despite verifications of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay. So clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy for her. After months paying over $100 out-of-pocket, she just couldn’t afford her medication anymore, and she had to stop taking it,” she said.

Her friend later went to the emergency room and was found to have a tennis ball-sized cyst on her ovary, which had to be removed. Although Fluke goes into detail on the opinions of students in Georgetown University in her testimony, she actually never mentions her personal sex life.

That didn’t seem to stop Rush Limbaugh from making personal attacks about it on his radio show. He claimed that her testimony was akin to asking to be paid to have sex. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute… She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” Limbaugh said on Feb. 29, 2012.

The next day, he proposed a “resolution”: “So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” he said. Perhaps Limbaugh was attempting some odd sort of satire in his comments, but their aggressive, personal nature made them anything but funny.

A far more constructive criticism was made in a piece by John McCormack of the Weekly Standard. According to one Washington D.C. Target employee he talked to, their pharmacy sold a month’s supply of birth control pills for $9. It turned out, though, that the plan was for members of a local plan that serviced employees of local businesses — not the general public. On their website, Planned Parenthood estimates birth control pills to cost around $15-50 dollars a month. This would put the yearly cost of birth control at $180-600, which is $1,260 – $4,200 for four years of college and three of law school.

Some women have been referencing the coverage of Viagra and other medicines used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) to point out the hypocrisy of the situation. One claim is that if men’s health is covered, then women’s should be as well, which includes birth control in medical situations.

On Mar. 3, Limbaugh issued an apology to Fluke, though he defended his stance on the issue. “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices,” he said. Fluke responded later saying that “I don’t think that a statement like this, saying that his choice of words was not the best, changes anything … I believe that what it [his attacks] is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue and conveying that contraception is an important healthcare need that they need to have met in an affordable, accessible way.”

His show has not gone without financial repercussions; 140 advertisers have dropped him since the ordeal. Two radio stations have also dropped his show: WBEC in Pittsfield, Mass., and KPUA in Hilo, Hawaii.

Conservatives, including Michele Bachmann, have criticized what they see as a double standard in the media, claiming that liberal commentators are criticized less harshly than conservative ones on this matter. Indeed, offensive commentary about women is an issue in both parties. Bill Maher, a Democratic talk show host, was criticized for calling Sarah Palin a “cunt” and a “dumb twat” during his stand up act and HBO talk show. More relevant are David Letterman’s sexually obscene jokes about Palin’s teenage daughters, Willow and Bristol. Like Fluke, they aren’t public figures, so personal insults toward them carry a lot more weight. While Maher and Letterman received backlash after these incidents, it was not quite of this scale. It’s important to remember that insensitive remarks can come from anywhere, not just conservatives, and furthermore they’re not always about sex.

Limbaugh isn’t the only one who attacked Fluke or was misinformed about her position, but his case is the one that sticks out. With over 15 million weekly listeners, Limbaugh’s show is the most listened to radio talk show in America, and with that comes a responsibility to research what he’s talking about and to be informed. Did he ever listen to Fluke’s testimony? Ultimately, his words were sloppy and hurtful to a lot of women.

Our tendency to misquote and twist facts to suit our own views is not exclusive to women’s health. There’s a predisposition to straw man arguments, ones that completely disregard the opposing side’s main point, in US political debates, because it makes it a lot easier to refute the other side. But nitpicking and selective quoting isn’t really countering the opposition’s argument, and is completely superficial. Why would I trust a politician and his views if he can’t even understand his opponent’s?

When people misquote and ignore Fluke’s main points, they’re taking the easy way out. They can discredit anyone like that, but it hardly means anything. All they’re doing is preaching to the choir. Critics start changing people’s opinions when they provide a clear, constructive argument — not when they’re blowing smoke.

In a way, though, our culture is a part of this giant mass of miscommunication. Some are too quick to believe people like Limbaugh, and write off Sandra Fluke as a “slut”. Even if a person doesn’t agree with her, she has legitimate concerns about women’s health that we should be informed of.

Her supporters can inform themselves, too, if they haven’t already. After all, it’s just as bad to blindly follow a cause as it is to vilify it. There are many nuances to this debate: how much should the government regulate? Who pays for this? What if a woman knows she’ll have life-threatening medical complications if she gets pregnant? Is it infringing on religious freedom to require coverage here?
Fluke isn’t the first — and certainly won’t be the last — casualty of our faulty politics. But it’s a shame to see such an important issue dismissed merely because people didn’t feel like spending a few minutes looking up what she actually said.