Just as the GOP was struggling to recover from Rick Santorum’s self-declared crusade against the “dangers of contraception” in this country, along comes Rush Limbaugh with an offensive and ignorant series of attacks on Sandra Fluke, a young woman who testified recently regarding the financial cost of birth control for female students at Georgetown’s law school. The school, which is part of a Catholic-run university, does not cover the cost of contraception under its student health plans.
Watch the video:
Now, there is a reasonable policy debate to be had over whether religious institutions should be required to cover the cost of contraception for women. (Georgetown actually does cover contraception for its female employees.) Indeed, the Obama Administration’s U-turn on the issue shows there are active election-year pressures on both sides of that issue. But Limbaugh’s rants are way outside the bounds of that debate and are deeply damaging to Republicans.
First, equating contraceptive use with sluttiness is not a winning approach, politically speaking. Virtually all sexually active women in America use some form of contraception at some point in their lives, reports the Guttmacher Institute. That includes 98% of sexually active Catholic women. Limbaugh defenders are arguing that what he’s really saying is that demanding contraceptive coverage is what makes a woman a slut. But Limbaugh actually called Fluke a “prostitute” and said she was “essentially saying that she must be paid to have sex.” This conflation of small-government polemics and hostility to female sexuality reveals a pretty creepy sexual fantasy on Limbaugh’s part; politically speaking, it’s just plain nuts.
Second, Limbaugh’s observations on the subject of contraception put into words the very stereotype some in the GOP have been attempting to shed — a pre-1950s ignorance not just of the social and civil rights benefits of contraception but of how it even works. Memo to Limbaugh: you don’t take the pill every time you have sex. If you have sex once or twice a month and prefer oral contraception to other methods, whether for health, personal or other reasons, you still have to be on the pill all month. Limbaugh’s ignorance of the mechanics of contraception resonates with what female voters will see as an ignorance of its social benefits. Despite Santorum’s arguments that contraceptive use leads to moral apocalypse, teen pregnancy is down thanks to contraception’s expanded availability and use. More broadly, the progress of women’s equality in society over the past 50 years has been partly attributed to the rise of female control over contraception in the mid-20th century.
Limbaugh and Santorum’s hostility to contraception will appear to many female voters as an attempt to roll back 50 years of progress for women. Limbaugh’s final over-the-top assertion — that if Fluke wants to be paid by taxpayers for sex, he “want[s] something in return,” namely, that she post videos online of herself having sex — just ties up the whole alienating package with a big “Vote for Obama” bow. No wonder John Boehner and GOP women everywhere are scrambling to try to undo the damage. Obama, for his part, has already realized where his interests lie in this fight. He called Fluke to offer his support.