Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Attempt to Terrorise Sandra Fluke - and All Women

If you've been following US news, you will be aware that yesterday President Obama placed a call to offer his support to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who testified last week about access to birth control for women. We'll talk in a moment about the horrific things that were said about Sandra that appalled so many of us, including the President. But before we do I want to give Fluke's original testimony the prominence that it deserves. Please watch:

For those of you who can't watch videos, or who would rather scan text - the full transcript of what she had to say is below:

“My name is Sandra Fluke, and I’m a third-year student at Georgetown Law School. I’m also a past-president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice or LSRJ. And I’d like to acknowledge my fellow LSRJ members and allies and all of the student activists with us and thank them so much for being here today.
 “We, as Georgetown LSRJ, are here today because we’re so grateful that this regulation implements the non-partisan medical advice of the Institute of Medicine.
 “I attend a Jesuit law school that does not provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan. And just as we students have faced financial, emotional, and medical burdens as a result, employees at religiously-affiliated hospitals and institutions and universities across the country have suffered similar burdens.
 “We are all grateful for the new regulation that will meet the critical health care needs of so many women.
 “Simultaneously, the recently announced adjustment addresses any potential conflict with the religious identity of Catholic or Jesuit institutions.
 “When I look around my campus, I see the faces of the women affected by this lack of contraceptive coverage.
 “And especially in the last week, I have heard more and more of their stories. On a daily basis, I hear yet from another woman from Georgetown or from another school or who works for a religiously-affiliated employer, and they tell me that they have suffered financially and emotionally and medically because of this lack of coverage.
 “And so, I’m here today to share their voices, and I want to thank you for allowing them – not me – to be heard.
 “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. 40% of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggle financially as a result of this policy.
“One told us about how embarrassed and just powerless she felt when she was standing at the pharmacy counter and learned for the first time that contraception was not covered on her insurance and she had to turn and walk away because she couldn’t afford that prescription. Women like her have no choice but to go without contraception.
 “Just last week, a married female student told me that she had to stop using contraception because she and her husband just couldn’t fit it into their budget anymore. Women employed in low-wage jobs without contraceptive coverage face the same choice.
 “And some might respond that contraception is accessible in lots of other ways. Unfortunately, that’s just not true.
 “Women’s health clinic provide a vital medical service, but as the Guttmacher Institute has definitely documented, these clinics are unable to meet the crushing demand for these services. Clinics are closing, and women are being forced to go without the medical care they need.
 “How can Congress consider the [Rep. Jeff] Fortenberry (R-Neb.), [Sen. Marco] Rubio (R-Fla.) and [Sen. Roy] Blunt (R-Mo.) legislation to 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 de-fund those very same clinics?
 “These denial of contraceptive coverage impact real people.
 “In the worst cases, women who need these medications for other medical conditions suffer very dire consequences.
 “A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome, and she has to take prescription birth control to stop 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. There would be no exception for other medical needs. And under Sen. Blunt’s amendment, Sen. Rubio’s bill or Rep. Fortenberry’s bill there’s no requirement that such an exception be made for these medical needs.
 “When this exception does exist, these exceptions don’t accomplish their well-intended goals because when you let university administrators or other employers rather than women and their doctors dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose are not, women’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.
 “In 65% of the cases at our school, our female students were interrogated by insurance representatives and university medical staff about why they needed prescription and whether they were lying about their symptoms.
 “For my friend and 20% 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.
 “I learned about all of this when I walked out of a test and got a message from her that in the middle of the night in her final exam period she’d been in the emergency room. She’d been there all night in just terrible, excruciating pain. She wrote to me, ‘It was so painful I woke up thinking I’ve been shot.’
 “Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result.
 “On the morning I was originally scheduled to give this testimony, she was sitting in a doctor’s office, trying to cope with the consequences of this medical catastrophe.
 “Since last year’s surgery, she’s been experiencing night sweats and weight gain and other symptoms of early menopause as a result of the removal of her ovary. She’s 32-years-old.
 “As she put it, ‘If my body indeed does enter early menopause, no fertility specialist in the world will be able to help me have my own children. I will have no choice at giving my mother her desperately desired grandbabies simply because the insurance policy that I paid for, totally unsubsidized by my school, wouldn’t cover my prescription for birth control when I needed it.’
 “Now, in addition to potentially facing the health complications that come with having menopause at such an early age – increased risk of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis – she may never be able to conceive a child.
“Some may say that my friend’s tragic story is rare. It’s not. I wish it were
 “One woman told us doctors believe she has endometriosis, but that can’t be proven without surgery. So the insurance has not been willing to cover her medication – the contraception she needs to treat her endometriosis.
 “Recently, another woman told me that she also has polycystic ovarian syndrome and she’s struggling to pay for her medication and is terrified to not have access to it.
“Due to the barriers erected by Georgetown’s policy, she hasn’t been reimbursed for her medications since last August.
 “I sincerely pray that we don’t have to wait until she loses an ovary or is diagnosed with cancer before her needs and the needs of all of these women are taken seriously.
 “Because this is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends: A woman’s reproductive health care isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority.
 “One woman told us that she knew birth control wasn’t covered on the insurance and she assumed that that’s how Georgetown’s insurance handle all of women’s reproductive and sexual health care. So when she was raped, she didn’t go to the doctor, even to be examined or tested for sexually transmitted infections, because she thought insurance wasn’t going to cover something like that – something that was related to a woman’s reproductive health.
 “As one other student put it: ‘This policy communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs.’
 “These are not feelings that male fellow student experience and they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.
 “In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking what did we expect when we enroll in 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 problem this policy created for us as students, they would help us.
 “We expected that when 94% of students oppose 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 think it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women.
 “Many of the women whose stories I’ve shared today are Catholic women. So ours is not a war against the church. It is a struggle for the access to the health care we need.
 “The President of the Association of Jesuit Colleges has shared that Jesuit colleges and the universities appreciate the modifications to the rule announced recently. Religious concerns are addressed and women get the health care they need. And I sincerely hope that that is something we can all agree upon.
 “Thank you very much.”

Now, the sad duty before me is to report what has been said about Sandra by right wing extremist radio host Rush Limbaugh. The below is pretty explicit and offensive, so stop reading now if your stomach turns easily.
"A Georgetown co-ed told Rep. Nancy Pelosi's hearing that the women in her law school program are having so much sex that they're going broke, so you and I should pay for their birth control. Speaking at a hearing held by Pelosi to tout Pres. Obama's mandate that virtually every health insurance plan cover the full cost of contraception and abortion-inducing products, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke said that it's too expensive to have sex in law school without mandated insurance coverage. Apparently, four out of every ten co-eds are having so much sex that it's hard to make ends meet if they have to pay for their own contraception, Fluke's research shows."
Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope. "'Forty percent of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggled financially as a result of this policy (Georgetown student insurance not covering contraception), Fluke reported. It costs a female student $3,000 to have protected sex over the course of her three-year stint in law school, according to her calculations.
"'Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school,' Fluke told the hearing. $3,000 for birth control in three years? That's a thousand dollars a year of sex -- and, she wants us to pay for it." ...
What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? 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. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We're not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that's right. Pimp's not the right word. Okay, so she's not a slut. She's "round heeled." I take it back.
And despite the furore over his remarks, Limbaugh continued his attacks on Fluke in the following day's program:
This is about expanding the reach and power of government into your womb, if you're a woman. This is about the Democrat Party wanting more and more control over you. What was early feminism all about? Emancipation, individuality, freedom, liberation, all of these things. Now here comes Danica Patrick out and she says, "I'm perfectly comfortable letting the government make my health decisions for me." Well, folks, I'm gonna tell you: Right there, that's the death and the end of feminism.
When Danica Patrick can come out and say (paraphrased), "Oh, I'm perfectly fine with the government making these health care decisions for me," and that's feminism? I don't want to make these decisions! Nobody is denying Ms. Fluke her birth control pills. Ms. Fluke is approaching everybody and asking us to pay for them.
 Argh. Excuse me while I go wash my hands now. I feel dirty after quoting that.

OK. So, there are a number of things going on here, most of which are obvious, but just in case anyone is missing them, let me spell out clearly the many ways in which not only Rush, but the many other right wing commentators who have discussed this issue have gotten falt out wrong. (Leaving aside the gratuitous cruelty.)
1) This is not about sexual promiscuity. As Fluke's testimony makes clear, many women take birth control on the advice of their doctors for reasons other than contraception. And even for those who are using birth control primarily to prevent pregnancy (not that there's a damn thing wrong with that, by the way!) the overwhelming majority are married or in permanent exclusive relationships and are seeking to plan when of if they have their children.
2) Birth control costs are unrelated to sexual promiscuity. Rush seems to misunderstand this basic fact, but for the record: the cost of the pill is the same each month whether you're having sex multiple times a day, rarely, or not at all. In fact, because women't bodies take some time to adjust to the hormonal balance women are generally advised to stay on the pill consistently even if they go through a period in which they do not expect to be having sex
3) Sandra Fluke's sex life is not up for discussion here. You will notice that at no point in her testimony did she refer to her own sex life or relationship status. She spoke as a representative of other women and on behalf of an organisation, Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice. We don't even know from this testimony whether Fluke herself uses birth control, is in a relationship, or is sexually active. She testified about a medical issue, siting the xperiences of other people who have been affected by it. And for her trouble she was called "slut" and "prostitute".
4) This testimony could have been given by a man. The great irony here is that when Fluke was originally denied the right to speak at the Republican-led hearing on this issue, the headlines at the time referred to the fact that this meant no women were testifying about this issue of women's health. I agree it's profoundly important to hear the voices of women about the issues that affect women. But in Fluke's case, almost nothing she said could not equally have been given as testimony by a man. But had the person testifying been male, no one could have called him slutty or suggested that his parents should be ashamed of him.

5) No-one is asking you or the government to pay for my birth control. Limbaugh's basic premise is that the free birth control provision amounts  to some sort of new welfare entitelement for women. But it's important to stress that President Obama's birth control mandate will not cost one additional dime of the taxpayers money or any additional contribution from health insurers. Offering complimentary birth control to all reduces the overal costs for insurers - thus they actually save money by providing this service. Just as other preventative health care measures (stop smoking programs, pap smears etc.) save insurers money. And they do so not only by reducing unwanted pregancies, but also by preventing medical ailments such as the one suffered by Fluke's friend. In fact, that story makes very clear how this circumstance works - free birth control pills could have prevented the formation of the cyst which eventually caused an expensive surgery followed by lifelong treatment.
So, Rush Limbaugh has literally got every single relevant fact in this situation dead wrong.

But there's something else going on here, that we need to all be aware of. Rush will pay the price for his out of order comments - already, 5 advertisers have announced that they are withdrawing their sponsorship from the show. Republican candidates have started to play the awkward Dance of Disassociation (Rick Santorum, weakly, says that what Rush said was "Ridiculous." But, ya know, he's an "entertainer" so he gets to say these things. Because gratuitous, content free personal insults are a LAUGH RIOT!) and the right wing effort in Congress to overturn the President's good work on contraceptive cover has failed.

So, no harm no foul, right? Wrong. Because, as with terrorist suicide bombings the success is not judged by the damage done to the perpetrator but by the terror imposed on the population.

Speaking up for access to birth control, or women't reproductive freedom in general, is often difficult. Like many women, I believe that my decisions about family planning and my health are private and personal, and I prefer not to discuss them publically. I have had problems in the past (in fact, I still have problems) with access to family planning services being severely constrained. And I feel a certain sense of guilt about this - that I ought to be speaking up more about this, confronting the local Catholic doctor who refuses to allow any of the 25+ doctors in his practice to prescribe birth control, complaining to the Local Council about the overcrowded, understaffed birth control clinic 2 miles away from me that is the only access women in my neighborhood have to family planning services. People are shocked by this. But BY GOD I don't want to be the public face of birth control advocacy. What happened to Sandra Fluke is exactly what in my worst nightmares I imagine might happen to me.

It takes bravery to speak up about this. Rush's attack was designed to quash that bravery in millions of women. He may well succeed. This is terrorism, pure and simple.