Hobby Lobby and the Rush Limbaugh Effect

We’ve forgotten Sandra Fluke’s message even as she’s become a household name.

Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke. 
National Journal
Lucia Graves
July 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s one of the quirks of the con­ver­sa­tion around con­tra­cep­tion that hardly any­one re­calls what Sandra Fluke was ac­tu­ally say­ing in the testi­mony that cata­pul­ted her to na­tion­al at­ten­tion. What people re­mem­ber is that, at some point in the course of the 2012 elec­tions, Rush Limbaugh called her a slut.

And just like that, an in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion about the med­ic­al needs of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans turned in­to an as­in­ine In­ter­net firestorm over wheth­er the Geor­getown Uni­versity law stu­dent could right­fully be called a sex­ist slur. Fluke ap­peared on NBC to say she was “stunned” and “out­raged.” Rush penned a rare mea culpa. And Pres­id­ent Obama reached out to her per­son­ally, to em­path­ize. The cov­er­age was such that The Week felt the need to run a large graph­ic en­titled “Rush Limbaugh vs. Sandra Fluke: A Timeline.”

The out­rage was mer­ited, but it was not a re­place­ment for a policy dis­cus­sion about the point that Fluke was ac­tu­ally mak­ing in her testi­mony: that there are sun­dry med­ic­al reas­ons wo­men need ac­cess to birth con­trol as a mat­ter of routine health, in­clud­ing cyst and can­cer pre­ven­tion. It also, as MS­N­BCs Ben­jy Sarlin re­cently mused, has been al­most en­tirely for­got­ten.

So let’s set the re­cord straight. Fluke’s testi­mony re­volved around wo­men for whom ac­cess to con­tra­cept­ives is a med­ic­al im­per­at­ive, not simply a way to pre­vent preg­nancy. In par­tic­u­lar, she fo­cused on a les­bi­an friend of hers at Geor­getown who needed the pill to reg­u­late a com­mon med­ic­al con­di­tion. “In the worst cases wo­men who need this med­ic­a­tion for oth­er med­ic­al reas­ons suf­fer very dire med­ic­al con­sequences,” Fluke said at the time. “A friend of mine, for ex­ample, has poly­cyst­ic ovari­an syn­drome and she has to take pre­scrip­tion birth con­trol to stop cysts from form­ing on her ovar­ies.”

While she made a nu­anced ar­gu­ment for the med­ic­al be­ne­fits of birth con­trol, all we re­mem­ber is later she got labeled a slut. Call it the Rush Limbaugh ef­fect and chalk it up to mis­takes made 2012. The trouble is, it’s still hap­pen­ing, and the rul­ing in the Hobby Lobby case last week is a per­fect ex­ample of how.

The Su­preme Court’s ma­jor­ity opin­ion, which found that closely held cor­por­a­tions may for re­li­gious reas­ons deny their em­ploy­ees cer­tain forms of con­tra­cept­ive cov­er­age, made zero men­tions of wo­men who rely on the pill for med­ic­al reas­ons. It’s not be­cause it wasn’t in any of the leg­al lit­er­at­ure presen­ted to the Court be­fore the de­cision.

“Poly­cyst­ic ovari­an syn­drome” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “slut.”

An at­tor­ney who cowrote a brief to the Su­preme Court on be­half of ovari­an-can­cer ad­voc­ates said the justices (to say noth­ing of the gen­er­al pub­lic) have failed to con­sider the broad­er nar­rat­ive. “The de­bate was mis-framed as a con­tra­cept­ive de­bate from the be­gin­ning,” Michelle Kisloff, a part­ner at Hogan Lov­ells, told me. “We’ve tried to re­cast that de­bate to ori­ent the Court to the fact that there’s more go­ing on here than preg­nancy and con­tra­cep­tion, but ul­ti­mately the Court went with the way Hobby Lobby had char­ac­ter­ized it.”

That’s not however, be­cause Fluke’s friend is alone in her health prob­lems. PCOS is a com­mon con­di­tion. In fact, as I noted in my piece Thursday, PCOS is the single most fre­quent en­do­crine prob­lem in wo­men of re­pro­duct­ive age, af­fect­ing 5 to 10 per­cent of the fe­male pop­u­la­tion. And hor­mone reg­u­la­tion, via or­al con­tra­cept­ives, is the best known treat­ment.

That the highly for­get­table name makes the con­di­tion sound more ob­scure than it ac­tu­ally is is such a big prob­lem that ex­perts have long re­com­men­ded re­nam­ing the con­di­tion, which af­fects ap­prox­im­ately 5 mil­lion wo­men of re­pro­duct­ive age in the United States. It’s one of a hand­ful of med­ic­al con­di­tions — in­clud­ing en­do­met­ri­os­is, en­do­metri­al can­cer, and ovari­an can­cer — that were ig­nored in last week’s Hobby Lobby de­cision. Not that you’d know it from the tran­script of or­al ar­gu­ments or the cov­er­age of the de­cision that fol­lowed.

The way the Court and the me­dia have been talk­ing about it has more in com­mon with the Limbaugh per­spect­ive. “Sex, sex, sex. That’s what it’s all about,” Limbaugh said over the week­end. “Every­body wants it and whatever it takes to make it safe. And if it takes the tax­pay­er buy­ing wo­men birth con­trol than men are for it too.” In an­oth­er, he claimed wo­men wouldn’t need birth con­trol if they simply “didn’t do a cer­tain thing.”

If Amer­ic­ans have for­got­ten Fluke’s mes­sage, they haven’t for­got­ten Fluke. Though her star has faded con­sid­er­ably since the days of Limbaugh la­beling her with idi­ot­ic epi­thets, she’s back in the news this elec­tion cycle — this time as a can­did­ate.

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