Last week Sandra Fluke became famous overnight. But the cascading sequence of events leading to Rush Limbaugh’s tirade against the 30-year-old Georgetown law student began two months ago. At a Republican presidential debate on Jan. 7, moderator George Stephanopoulus mystified Mitt Romney — and many observers — by pressing Romney about his views on contraception. Two weeks later, the Obama Administration announced it would require Catholic universities and charities to include birth control as their health coverage. Republican presidential candidates accused Obama of launching a “war on religion.” Catholic bishops balked at the mandate. And in mid-February, around the time Obama acceded to pressure and softened the rule, GOP Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, scheduled a Feb. 16 hearing entitled, “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”
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Democrats on the committee tapped a low-level staffer to find a witness whose testimony and profile would juxtapose nicely with the tableau of white men Issa planned to call. The staffer found a video clip of Fluke speaking at the National Press Club on Feb. 9, when she was one of several Catholic students to defend the Obama Administration’s ruling. Fluke was eloquent, female and a student at a Jesuit institution to boot. “We couldn’t have picked a better witness,” says a Democratic committee staffer, who would not reveal the identify of the colleague who located Fluke.
Issa didn’t agree. He excluded Fluke, arguing that testimony on the benefits of the contraception mandate fell outside the bounds of a hearing held to scrutinize the rule. But it’s easy to see why Democrats considered Fluke (pronounced Fluck) compelling enough to hold their own hearing on Feb. 23, during a Congressional recess. Fluke is soft-spoken and earnest. She kept her poise, voice faltering only slightly, as she told the story of a gay friend who needed prescription birth control to prevent the growth of ovarian cysts. When Georgetown declined to cover the pills on the grounds that they were intended to prevent a pregnancy, Fluke said, her friend developed a cyst “the size of a tennis ball” that required the removal of her ovary. As Fluke noted, oral contraceptives, which can be costly, are often prescribed for medical issues unrelated to preventing pregnancy. “A woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body,” she told the assembled members of Congress.
This was the testimony that prompted Limbaugh to insult Fluke at least 53 times over three days last week, often in vicious and vulgar terms. “She’s having so much sex it’s amazing she can still walk,” Limbaugh said, scoffing at the notion that “she wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex” and suggesting Fluke could repay the debt by posting pornographic videos online.
Fluke was at her computer in Washington when she first heard Limbaugh’s comments. In less than 24 hours, she was engulfed by a political firestorm. “It can be overwhelming at times,” she tells TIME from Los Angeles, “but what I am trying to focus on is my main goal in the situation, and that is continuing to advocate on behalf of women affected by the contraception regulation and making sure that policy is implemented in a strong way.”
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Focusing can’t be easy. A man with a giant megaphone turned her into an avatar for the depraved and entitled left, and the left returned the umbrage. President Obama called her cell phone while she was hovering outside the door of an MSNBC studio awaiting an interview. (Fluke is using a p.r. firm to help her handle the flood of media inquiries.) Republicans vying to take on Obama squirmed to address the controversy without offending Limbaugh’s millions of fans. Limbaugh’s comments spurred an exodus of advertisers and a flurry of cable news segments about whether the imbroglio would sully Republicans’ standing with female voters. Fluke, the victim of a crude personal attack, became a pawn in a political chess match.
Amid the furor triggered by Limbaugh’s remarks, one of the tropes that emerged on the right was that Fluke was a plant — not a normal third-year law student unwittingly thrust into the national spotlight, but rather a liberal activist who courted the controversy to reap its rewards. “Is Sandra Fluke a Fame-Hungry Activist?” blared a Fox News headline above a piece tracking her TV appearances. It’s hard to imagine anyone is fame-hungry enough to welcome the notoriety of being called a “slut” and a “prostitute” before a national audience. But as Fluke will tell you, she has been a women’s rights activist since college. National controversies are something new, but she is no wide-eyed naif, either.
At Cornell, where she graduated in 2003, Fluke belonged to a pro-choice organization called Students Acting for Gender Equality; a Cornell student newspaper clip from 2002 recounts her role in a counter-protest against an anti-abortion group. Before heading to Georgetown, she worked with groups that provided services to victims of rape, domestic violence and human trafficking. “I’ve continued that type of work after coming to law school,” she says. “That’s the area my internships have focused on. That’s my career path.”
Fluke says she understands that contraception is anathema to some religious beliefs. “There are, of course, some people who legitimately disagree about the actual contraception policy, and that legitimate policy disagreement is appropriate,” she says. But she also thinks there are other motivations at play, including “misinformation about whether this is a taxpayer subsidy.” Says Fluke: “This has been completely distorted, I believe probably intentionally, by people who are hoping to confuse the debate. And it’s just entirely inaccurate.”
Intentional or not, Limbaugh’s central point — that taxpayers shouldn’t pay the tab if students choose to use birth control — is in fact predicated on a fallacy. Republicans oppose mandates and many regulations on ideological grounds, and they also oppose taxpayer money being used to subsidize services they don’t want. (As do Democrats; as Jon Stewart quipped, “reimburse me for the Iraq war and oil subsidies and…diaphragms are on me.”) But Limbaugh has conflated the two concerns. Taxpayer dollars aren’t used for the contraception rule, which puts the burden on insurers.
“Other than that it’s popular to say the taxpayers end up paying for this, I don’t see the argument,” says Timothy Jost, a law professor who studies healthcare at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “There’s no direct subsidy there.” In fact, as Jost notes, “there’s good evidence that contraception in fact reduces abortion and sterilization and births, and that that saves money.” A recent study published by the Brookings Institution suggests that each dollar spent to reduce unplanned pregnancies could save between two and six dollars down the line. For both insurers and the government, pregnancies are more expensive than the pill.
Yet in the scramble to defend Limbaugh and pillory liberals for wielding the controversy as a political cudgel, misconceptions have persisted among mainstream conservative commentators. “He was using insult and sarcasm to highlight the absurdity of Sandra Fluke and the left’s position, which in a nut shell is they think you, me, and every other American should pay for them to have sex,” wrote Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState and a CNN contributor. Conservative cartoonist Gary McCoy depicted Fluke as a fat, middle-aged hypocrite bending over to scrawl her number on a men’s room stall stall. “Stay out of my uterus, government…that is, right after paying for my free birth control,” the caption reads.
For months, Democrats have been pointing to state and federal legislation, such as a Virginia bill that would require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound, to argue that Republicans have launched a “war on women.” Limbaugh’s comments dovetailed perfectly with this argument, which, to Democrats’ delight, has seeped into the presidential campaign. “I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women,” Obama said during a press conference on Tuesday.
Fluke says the outpouring of support has cushioned the sting of such ugly attacks. She gets hundreds of messages a day from strangers. “That has helped stamp out the cynic in me,” she says. “I would do this again, because these issues are that important to me.”