"Slut." That's what right-wing radio crock-jock Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a former Georgetown law student who testified on the importance of birth control coverage in insurance plans. Fluke explained how the out-of-pocket cost of oral contraceptives could reach $3000 for a three year program ($1000 per year) and, the American right predictably lost its mind.
Admittedly, $1000 a year for contraceptives does look a little steep at first glance. Condoms cost a good deal less than $1 each and even 1,000 condoms for the year strikes many a male as an ambitious estimate at best. $3,000 would seem to purchase far more in the way of contraceptives than anyone outside of the professional sex trade could feasably need.
But not so fast...
If you've been getting your news and opinion from Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest of the right-wing flawed-squad you might think that Fluke was talking about contraceptives in general; she wasn't. You might think that she was talking about contraceptives used for the prevention of pregnancy; she wasn't. You might even think that she was asking the American tax payer to throw down $3000 towards the cost of student birth control; she wasn't.
Fluke went before Congress, not to plead the case of slutty co-eds who want to sleep their way though law school but on behalf of the thousands of young women for whom birth control pills are a medical necessity. The Pill is more than a replacement for condoms; it is a highly sophisticated hormonal therapy program. For women with conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and a host of other issues, birth control pills or injections are more than an anti-pregnancy measure; they're a life-changing (and often life-saving) therapy.
So while $1000 a year sounds like highway robbery for a box of condoms, when you factor in doctor's appointments, pap-smears, lab fees, trans-vaginal-ultrasounds (particularly vital in assessing polycystic ovarian syndrome) and then add in the cost of the pills themselves -- all without insurance -- it is fairly easy to blow through $1,000 in a year. Not $1,000 in casual sex, mind you, but $1,000 in medically necessary hormone therapy. Fluke's statement is carefully worded: without insurance the cost of contraception can exceed $3,000; 40% of female students suffer financially because of Georgetown's contraception policy. No one ever said that the average Georgetown student spends $3,000 on contraception or that it costs $3,000 to avoid getting pregnant in law school; from the outset, Fluke's testimony was about medically necessary contraceptive therapy, not elective birth control.
Of course, you'd never know that from the way that Fluke's statements were reported in the main-stream media. Consider the following from Fluke's testimony [PDF] which few Americans likely saw in the reporting of this issue [emphasis mine]:
A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrom and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries... under Senator Blunt's amendment, Senator Rubio's bill, or Representative Fortenberry's bill, there's no requirement that an exception be made for such medical needs. While they do exist, these exceptions don't accomplish their well intended goals because when you let university administrator or other employees, rather than women and their doctors dictate whose medical needs are good enough and whose aren't, a woman's health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.
Fluke goes on to detail her friend's difficulty in getting birth control at Georgetown and the resulting health catastrophe that followed the cessation of her birth control regiment when she could no longer afford the office visits, lab fees, and drugs on her own. Though her policy would cover such treatments if they were a medical necessity, Georgetown's insurance program was concerned that she -- a lesbian -- was using the pills for contraceptive rather than therapeutic reasons.
Indeed, Fluke goes on [emphasis mine]:
In sixty-five percent of cases, our female students were interrogated by insurance representatives and university medical staff about why they need these prescriptions and whether they're lying about their symptoms. For my friend, and 20% of women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription, despite verification of her illness from her doctor.
This is what Fluke was concerned about: not whatever sordid sorority sex romp Rush Limbaugh imagined but that the very real medical conditions which are often treated with oral contraceptives would fall through the cracks of the moralistic Blunt amendment. Fluke never asked American tax payers to pick up the tab for birth control -- not for $100 or $1000 a year. She never asked Georgetown to do so or even the Catholic Church. All she wanted, all she expected was that "when 94% of students opposed the policy, the university would respect our choices regarding insurance students pay for completely unsubsidized by the university, especially when the university already provides contraceptive coverage to faculty and staff." [Emphasis mine]
That's all she asked for: to be allowed to spend her money the way that she and 94% of her fellow classmates wanted to. For that the right's self-proclaimed "culture warriors" labeled her a "slut."
Again, to hear the main stream media cover this story you would think this an isolated incident but in truth the slandering of women is part of a longstanding pattern of behavior among the American Right. Conservatives speak about abortion as if it is used only for the elective termination of a pregnancy, not to save women's lives or end a doomed pregnancy without undue suffering on the part of both mother and fetus. They speak of contraception as if it serves only as a fuel that sustains late-night collegiate orgies rather than a life-saving treatment for debilitating and terrifying medical conditions.
They do these things because there is a hierarchy of stories that right-wing politicians can afford to see in the press and at the very bottom of that hierarchy is a story about how an unnecessary bureaucracy kept a sick woman from getting the care she needed to save her life because the governmental morality police thought she might be a "slut."
And now you know the other side of the story.