Editor’s note: Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She writes about social issues, parenting and relationships on her blog, Carolyn Edgar. You can follow her on Twitter @carolynedgar.
By Carolyn Edgar, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Rush Limbaugh may have offered a tepid apology to Sandra Fluke for his vicious, unprincipled attack, but it’s doubtful Limbaugh is truly sorry for his choice of words. By painting Fluke, the Georgetown University law student whom he excoriated for her pro-birth control testimony before Congress, as a “slut” who wants taxpayers to pay her to have sex, Limbaugh attempted to give the GOP more weapons to use against President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. In typical Limbaugh fashion, his methods may have been sloppy, but effective.
Limbaugh’s reframing of health insurance coverage for birth control – a right supported by the Bush Administration without question for over a decade – as yet another “entitlement” sought by greedy liberals was not lost on conservatives, even as they chided him for his poor choice of words. A Wall Street Journal opinion writer, for example, argued that Fluke “went to Congress looking for a handout.” Never mind that Fluke spoke not of her own sex life and her own personal use of birth control, but of the experiences of friends who were denied access under Georgetown’s student health plan to birth control pills used to treat a variety of medical conditions. Notable in Fluke’s testimony was the story she told of a friend who lost an ovary to polycystic ovarian disease because Georgetown refused to provide her birth control pills even though, as a lesbian, the woman was not concerned about pregnancy prevention.
Referring to insurance coverage for birth control as an “entitlement” is false and misleading. Fluke did not go to Congress seeking “free birth control,” but to argue in favor of a principle that has been law for over a decade. In December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies that provided prescription drugs to their employees but didn’t provide birth control violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. Under the EEOC ruling, employers who offered men preventative care medicine such as erectile dysfunction treatment also had to provide women preventative care medicine such as birth control.
As working Americans know, employer health insurance coverage is not free. Employees pay part of the cost for these insurance programs through payroll deductions. Most employer insurance programs require co-pays for doctor visits; thus, obtaining a prescription for birth control isn’t “free” for most employees, with or without a prescription co-pay. University student health plans also typically require students to pay annual premiums, along with tuition payments and other expenses. It is a gross mischaracterization to claim that a woman who expects the insurance she pays for to cover the medication she needs is looking for taxpayer-funded “entitlements.”
Limbaugh is merely the latest conservative to speak of birth control as something used only by women with loose morals so they can have free, easy sex. Rick Santorum has said about contraception: “It’s not OK, because it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” In other words, it’s bad for women to have sex without the fear of conception. Conservatives deny waging a war on women and women’s health, yet they continue to speak of women’s sexuality in Victorian terms.
In all of this focus on single women gone wild, there’s a missing element: men. A few days ago, I asked on Twitter: “If having sex makes a woman a slut, what does that make the men who have sex with her?” A few conservative men came at me with Limbaugh-like slurs. Remarkably, the men wanted to know why women like Fluke couldn’t go to Planned Parenthood for free condoms, or derided women for being too cheap to buy “20¢ condoms.” None of these men seemed to realize that the Pill and condoms are not mutually exclusive – that women who are on the Pill still require their partners to use condoms to protect against the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted disease. They also seemed not to comprehend that condoms are used exclusively by men, not women. More importantly, all of the men debating contraception seem to forget that men, too, benefit from the avoidance of unplanned pregnancies, as does the society at large.
Also missing from the birth control debate are married women. While the right has focused on castigating single women for their sexual activity, among the millions of women who use contraceptives are married women who rely on them for family planning. While married women’s voices have not been the loudest in this debate, both Republicans and Democrats know that married women will be making their voices heard loudest on this issue at the ballot box in November.
If Limbaugh’s comments revealed anything, it is that Americans are still uncomfortable with women’s sexuality, fifty years after the advent of the Pill. Uncomfortable or not, American women are not interested in rolling back the clock to a time when they had no control over their own sexuality or fertility. Birth control isn’t an “entitlement,” but it has provided women socioeconomic freedom that they are not willing to give up. Limbaugh and others can call women who admit to using birth control “sluts” if they want to, but all they’re doing is mobilizing women to fight back – hard – to maintain the liberty they’ve enjoyed for half a century.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carolyn Edgar.