Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh, Contraception, and Clashing Values

Quite often when I write a post, I get a nervous feeling: I'm about to write something that could potentially piss people off, both on the right and left ends of the spectrum. This is especially acute with such emotionally charged (in the US at least) issues as contraception in all its forms. The antidote to this, to some degree, is to remain respectful and fair, and that's just the solution to the problem, as I will now argue.

Sandra Fluke is a law student at Georgetown, a prestigious catholic university. She testified before Congress in support of mandating that insurance companies pay for contraception for women. In this case, I believe the contraception specifically in question was birth control pills. Her argument centered around the costs of birth control during a student's time in law school (up to $3,000 according to her estimate) and the fact that birth control pills can be used to treat other medical issues, such as ovarian cysts. This condition caused a fellow student of hers to lose an ovary, and the implication was that, had Georgetown been willing to fund birth control pills, she would not have had to suffer that loss. Fluke argued "It's not about church and state, it's about women's health."1

Rush Limbaugh attacked her on character grounds, saying that asking for others to pay her so she could have sex made her a "slut" and a "prostitute." Don't worry, I'm not about to defend him. Georgetown University President John DeGioia said it best when he called Limbaugh's remarks "misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student."2

So where's the controversy? It's that I'm on the fence in this debate, though Obama has apparently already suggested the sensible thing in exempting religious organizations from the rule and putting the onus on insurance companies to offer free contraception.

The thing is: contraception can only cost $3,000 if you're using birth control pills. Why not use condoms? They'd be cheaper unless you're having a lot of sex. If you are, fine by me, but I also am not sure other people should help pay for condoms if you're using so many you can't afford them yourself. But this talk is bringing the debate dangerously toward Limbaugh's position, which is not at all what it's about. Let's bring it back to more likely condom use. One argument would be that condoms can break. Well, then use the morning after pill. Condom failure is really not an issue if women have access to the whole palette of contraceptive options, which they should, in my view. And there's another argument for condoms: only they can prevent the spread of most STDs. Birth control will not, so only using that is a risk to women's (and everyone's) health by itself.

There are other reasons for using birth control. Many may use it for health reasons (like for ovarian cysts). So be it, surely an exception for medical necessity ought not to be the vitriolic debate starter it is.

So what am I arguing? I am NOT arguing against birth control and certainly not against contraception in any of its forms. I AM arguing against mandating that all insurance companies must always pay for one of the more expensive forms of contraception whenever a woman wishes to have it: birth control pills. They might instead be required to cover funding for condoms... or not, they ought to be cheap enough and many organizations give them away for free. Birth control pills ought to be offered by insurance companies in cases of other medical necessity on the recommendation of a doctor.

What would this look like in practice? If you're a woman and want birth control pills, you would be free to choose an insurance provider who would pay for them (or buy them yourself, of course). If the plan is too expensive, you'd have two options: switch to condoms or convince your doctor you need them for health reasons. If you really do, then obviously that would be the route you should take, no questions asked. If you don't really need it for your health, I'd personally recommend the first choice because of my views on honesty.

In short: women should have a right to contraception and be free to choose whatever form of it they wish. However, it does not follow from that line that all forms of contraception must be made available free of charge, regardless of the relative merits and costs of other forms. In an age of rising health care costs and increasing government austerity, we should be looking at ways to save public money where this is feasible and does not cause undo harm. This seems like an okay area to do so. If only we could have a sane conversation about it...

As always, I welcome your comments. I actively encourage everyone to express whatever views they have, but please keep the discourse respectful and stick to the facts.

1: “Obama Calls Student Insulted by Talk Show Host.” Yahoo!, n.d.
2: “Obama Calls Student in Slut Slur.” BBC, March 2, 2012, sec. US & Canada.


  1. Does no one agree with Rush that
    Flack's reputation may be questionable?

    Doe no one care any longer about
    abstinence until marriage? What a
    coarse and depraved society ours has sadly become. No shame!(No personal
    discipline or self control--give in
    to all)


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