Dems Stage a Single-Witness ‘Hearing’ to Frame Their ‘Reproductive Rights’ Argument

Penny Starr | February 24, 2012 | 6:05am EST
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Georgetown Law student and 'reproductive rights' activist Sandra Fluke spoke at a hearing held by a handful of Democrats on Feb. 23, 2012 about the lack of birth control available at the Jesuit college she attends. ( Starr)

( – Because their witness was denied an opportunity to testify at last week’s Republican-led hearing on religious freedom, House Democrats staged a hearing of their own Thursday, playing to the media and framing the argument as one of “women’s health.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said she called the hearing of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee because Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University Law School, was not allowed to testify at the Feb. 16 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Democrats are prepared to hear from a single witness today, a Georgetown Law student, Sandra Fluke, to testify before the committee,” Pelosi said in her opening remarks.

“We are proud to bring Sandra before our Steering and Policy Committee to deliver the testimony she was denied last week, to stand firm in the cause of women’s health -- to no longer be held silent. Sandra is a bold and passionate leader for young women and all women, at Georgetown and across the country. She understands that this issue that we’re discussing is a matter of women’s health, plain and simple.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ( Starr)

Pelosi noted that Fluke has been active in the battle against human trafficking and domestic violence, and she also served as the president and secretary of a “reproductive justice” group at Georgetown Law School.

At Thursday’s staged hearing, Fluke said she chose to go to law school at Georgetown because it offers a quality education, but she also expected the school to accommodate students who do not share the Catholic belief that contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization are immoral.

Fluke said Georgetown, a Jesuit school, does not provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan, a situation that places "financial, emotional and medical burdens" on students.

She expressed gratitude for the Obama administration's contraception mandate, which will force religiously affiliated schools and hospitals to provide services that some religions, including Catholicism, find morally wrong and impermissible.

Republicans and many faith leaders say the issue is one of religious freedom and government coercion.

But Fluke and many Democrats see it differently:

“When I look around my campus, I see the faces of the women affected by this lack of contraceptive coverage," Fluke testified. "One told us about how embarrassed and just powerless she felt when she was standing at the pharmacy counter and learned for the first time that contraception was not covered on her insurance and she had to turn and walk away because she couldn’t afford that prescription. Women like her have no choice but to go without contraception.

“Just last week, a married female student told me that she had to stop using contraception because she and her husband just couldn’t fit it into their budget anymore. Women employed in low-wage jobs without contraceptive coverage face the same choice."

Fluke, describing birth control as "medication," said some women need it to cure disease:

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“A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome, and she has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown’s insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy."

But Fluke noted that her friend "never got the insurance company to cover her prescription. Despite verifications of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay."

The friend, unable to afford the out-of-pocket costs of her mediation, finally stopped taking it, and ended up having her ovary removed because of a cyst. Now the gay woman wonders if she'll be able to give her mother "desperately desired grandbabies."

Fluke said women at Catholic schools expect to "be treated equally," expect to have "all of our medical needs" met, and expect the university to "respect our choices" on health insurance.

“We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere,” Fluke said.

“And even if that meant going to a less prestigious university, we refuse to pick between a quality education and our health. And we resent that in the 21st century, anyone think it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), who presided over last week’s hearing on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,  noted that his committee is responsible, not for health issues, but for government accountability.

He said the Obama administration’s rule forcing most health insurance plans to cover birth control free of charge raises “a more fundamental question about the proper role of government in our lives.”

Issa said the Feb. 16 hearing would probe whether protection will be afforded to religious institutions who wish to follow their conscience in refusing to pay for products they find morally objectionable.

Issa also said he would decide whether a witness was “appropriate and qualified,” and he decided that Fluke’s activism on reproductive rights was not fitting for the purpose of the hearing.

During the Feb. 16 hearing, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) asked Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University about the nature of the hearing – was it about contraception and abortifacients or religious freedom?

“This is absolutely an issue of the religious freedom and only of religious freedom,” Soloveichik responded. “For our members of this Committee or of Congress or of the Executive Branch who are concerned about access to contraception, they can seek through legislation or otherwise to ensure greater access to that as that can be debated in Congress, the members of Congress can vote on that, et cetera.

“And they are absolutely entitled and able to do that as members of Congress under the powers granted to them by the Constitution,” Soloveichik said.

“What they cannot do -- and that's why we're here today -- is to achieve this end by trampling on the religious freedom and the liberty of conscience of Americans and they can't do that because that would be a violation of the Constitution that both members of Congress and of the Executive Branch have sworn to uphold and protect,” Soloveichik said.

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