WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called a law student on Friday to express his support after she was branded a “slut” by controversial right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh for her outspoken support of Obama’s new policy on contraception coverage.
Sandra Fluke, a 30-year old student and women’s rights activist at Georgetown University in Washington, has been caught in the middle of a contentious election-year fight between Obama and Republicans over the policy, which requires health insurance plans to cover contraception.
Religious-affiliated organizations, the Roman Catholic Church and social conservatives have protested Obama’s new policy as an infringement on religious liberty. An effort by Republicans in the Senate to overturn it failed this week.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, distanced his party from Limbaugh’s comments. A spokesman for Boehner called them “inappropriate” in a statement that also criticized Democrats for using the issue to raise funds before the November 6 election.
Fluke has spoken out against the Republican effort to scrap the birth control policy and advocated making contraception available to all women, drawing fire from Limbaugh and some other conservative commentators.
In an interview, Fluke told Reuters she was initially hurt, then outraged by Limbaugh’s remarks, but said she hoped the incident had raised awareness about the new policy.
She said had received “an avalanche” of supportive emails from women and men around the United States, including many from women who said they needed contraception to respond to medical conditions such as seizures, not just to prevent pregnancy.
The president called “to offer his support and thank me for helping to make heard the voices of all the women who will benefit from this regulation,” Fluke said. “He just wanted to clearly express his distaste for the types of comments that have been made about me. He was very kind.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama thinks Limbaugh’s comments were reprehensible.
“It is disappointing that those kinds of personal and crude attacks could be leveled against someone like this young law school student, who was simply expressing her opinion on a matter of public policy,” Carney said.
The Obama campaign for the November election has made the contraception issue a rallying cry to attract women voters, who helped Obama win the presidency in 2008. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it has raised $1.6 million since Fluke testified on Capitol Hill last week.
Obama’s policy originally required all employers that provide health insurance - except for houses of worship and churches - to supply coverage for women’s contraceptives. Non-employer sponsored health insurance policies would also have to cover them.
Obama subsequently tweaked the policy so that religiously affiliated employers like hospitals, universities and charities would not be required to cover the cost, which would fall instead on insurers. That did not satisfy Catholic bishops, who reject the use of artificial contraceptives.
The debate has triggered incendiary rhetoric on both sides of the issue, which has pitted advocates of women’s reproductive rights against supporters of conservative social policies.
Limbaugh first blasted Fluke on Wednesday: “What does it say about the college co-ed Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
Limbaugh, an influential conservative commentator known for his take-no-prisoners style and shocking comments, is one of the most listened-to radio talk-show hosts in the country.
“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” he added, repeating the slurs again on Thursday.
Fluke said Limbaugh’s comments were meant to silence women who spoke out about their health care needs, but the attack had failed.
“It’s clear from the voices that we’ve heard from all over the country that women and the men who support them are not going to be silenced on this issue,” said Fluke, who plans to take the bar exam in California and continue her advocacy work for women after graduating from law school in May.
Fluke told lawmakers in a Democratic House hearing on February 23 that female students at Georgetown, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the country, suffered financial hardship because contraception was not covered by their healthcare insurance and in some cases had stopped taking it because it cost too much money.
Georgetown University President John DeGioia said the debate over the contraceptives policy was a legitimate one, but he blasted the comments of Limbaugh and others as “behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”
Fluke said she had not ruled out suing Limbaugh for slander, but was focused on the policy debate for now.