After being thrust into the media spotlight in the national debate on contraception coverage in healthcare, Sandra Fluke (LAW ’12) shared her story Monday in Gaston Hall.
Fluke testified Feb. 23 on contraceptive access for students of religious universities before the U.S. House of Representative’s Democratic Steering and Policy Committee after being invited by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Her testimony was met with harsh criticism from conservative political pundits, particularly by radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”
Fluke’s lecture was sponsored by the Lecture Fund and the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and moderated by professor Judith Feder.
The conversation began with a description of Georgetown’s contraception coverage. Both undergraduate and graduate students can enroll in an insurance plan underwritten by the university or purchase private insurance. Georgetown’s plan does not cover contraceptives for pregnancy prevention needs but does cover birth control pills used for hormone control or other medicinal purposes.
According to Fluke, this approach causes problems for many women at Georgetown.
“Those problems ranged from having a doctor question extensively what your symptoms are … and not believing you … because they suspect that you may be trying to get contraception to prevent pregnancy,” she said. “Women have gone through very difficult conversations and many still don’t get reimbursement for the contraception that they need.”
In February, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced that the Affordable Care Act would require religiously-affiliated universities to provide complete contraception coverage in the health insurance they offer. Backlash from the U.S. Conference of Bishops and other religious organizations prompted President Obama to instead require insurance companies, not religiously-affiliated organizations themselves, to pay for birth control.
However, opponents of the regulations argue that by forcing private insurance companies to cover contraceptives, the federal government is still placing the burden on religious institutions that pay or contribute to their employees’ private insurance plans.
In response to this criticism, Fluke noted that the university does not contribute to student insurance plans.
“I do want to point out that here at Georgetown, student insurance was never subsidized. It’s always been entirely paid for by students,” she said. “Our own premiums pay for our own insurance, and there’s no institutional money involved.”
Fluke stressed that she does not feel that women should have to sacrifice their education in order to have access to affordable contraception.
“It seems wrong to ask female students to choose between their healthcare and the quality of their education,” she said. “If Georgetown is the best school you got into or offers you the best career opportunities, why should you as a female student have to not attend Georgetown and have to find somewhere else because of your healthcare needs?”
Though she has been divisive on the national stage, the audience in Gaston Hall was composed largely of students in support of Fluke and her role in advocating greater contraception coverage.
But her speaking appearance was not without controversy.
An open letter to University President John J. DeGioia prompted by Fluke’s role in the debate was signed by 103 current and former students and alumni, calling on the university to clarify its position on the healthcare mandates.
According to Knights of Columbus member and letter signatory Kevin Sullivan (SFS ’14), Georgetown can comply with the regulations by fall 2012, file for a one-year religious exemption or follow several other Catholic universities in suing the federal government over the perceived deprivation of religious liberty.
The letter is slated to be sent today to university administrators including DeGioia, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olsen and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J.
Sullivan also reiterated DeGioia’s calls for thoughtful discussion of the issue.
“We also need informed civil discourse,” he said. “When there is uninformed civil discourse, we can’t get anywhere. We want the university to clarify its reaction to where it stands on the Health and Human Services mandate, because we believe it should be an informed discussion.”
After the event, Kieran Raval (COL ’13) criticized the Lecture Fund for the format of the event.
“There was very little dialogue today. … It was Sandra speaking about her position and her activities, and obviously the moderator is very sympathetic,” he said.
Raval, who is Grand Knight of GU’s Knights of Columbus and also signed the open letter, suggested that a dialogue or panel format could have remedied the situation.