Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, barred last week by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on contraception and religion that featured a shouting match, got her moment in the sun on Thursday at a hearing replete with activists and capped off by a standing ovation.
"Many women in this country are energized about this issue," Fluke told the hearing called by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday morning.
"I felt insulted, not for myself, but for the women I wanted to represent, the women whose stories I wanted to convey to the committee and the women who were silenced," Fluke said. "There were not women there who were affected by this policy."
Reporters vastly outnumbered the four clearly friendly members of Congress at the standing-room-only hearing.
“Now, you have not only the Congress listening to you, but you have the country listening to you, and that is a powerful thing," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told Fluke.
Activists from reproductive-rights groups wore NARAL Pro-Choice America T-shirts or “BC4ME” stickers emblazoned with pictures of a birth control pill package.
The image of the Committee’s first, all-male panel of witnesses made the rounds last week, and became the backdrop for Thursday’s event. Rep. Carol Maloney, D-N.Y., brought an oversized photograph of the five men, which members gestured towards repeatedly.
“A picture is worth a million words,” Pelosi said, describing the 300,000 comments she’d received in the first 48 hours after the Oversight hearing.
Republicans on the committee said they had rejected Fluke, the Democrats' only proposed witness, because she was unqualified and her name was submitted too late. Issa told committee members that “this hearing is about religious freedom.”
Hence the Pelosi call for a recess-week, minority-led hearing on Thursday with only one witness. Fluke has become something of a celebrity since she was kept off last week’s panel. She spoke on Wednesday night at an event hosted by the American Association of University Women, and was interviewed on CNN.
The Democrats on the panel repeatedly focused on Issa's comments about Fluke's qualifications. In addition to the question about whether she was "energized"--a reference to Issa's description of Fluke as a woman "who appears to have become energized about this issue," she was also asked if she agreed with Issa's assesment she was unqualified.
“Can you think of what was in his head when he said that?” Maloney asked Fluke about Issa’s dismissal of her qualifications. “I know you’re qualified. I know you’re speaking for tens of millions of women across this country. Can you think of any reason why he would be so adamant?”
“Unfortunately, I think Chairman Issa’s head is somewhere I don’t want to go,” she responded. “They say knowledge is power, and evidently the knowledge of how this regulation will benefit millions of women’s lives is very powerful.”
Pelosi also tussled with House Republicans over televising the hearing and prevailed—10 cameras were trained on the one-witness hearing on Thursday, including one from C-SPAN, which broadcast the event live.
Democrats clearly see political advantage in the issue and at least one poll supports this. But so do Republicans, who have framed the debate as one about religious liberty, not women’s health. The Senate is expected to vote next week on an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would allow employers to exclude any insurance benefit they deem immoral. In addition to Issa’s hearing last week, the House Judiciary Committee is planning its own on “Executive Overreach: The HHS Mandate Versus Religious Liberty” on Tuesday.
In the Arizona presidential debate on Wednesday night, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all characterized the administration’s contraception policy as an assault on religious liberty. (Rep. Ron Paul objected to the government’s intervention in insurance regulation more broadly.)
Fluke’s testimony fell squarely on the women’s-health side of the ledger. The former president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice described student polling that showed broad support for contraceptive coverage. She also told the stories of two friends who she said had been harmed by the Jesuit university’s policy against contraceptive coverage. One 32-year-old student, she said, had lost an ovary to polycystic ovarian syndrome last year after her insurer refused to cover the hormonal birth control pills that kept the disease at bay, and is now experiencing symptoms of early menopause. Another woman, she said, had opted not to seek care of disease screening after a rape, because she assumed all women’s sexual health services would not be covered.
“This is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends,” Fluke said. “A woman’s reproductive health care isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority.”