Sandra Fluke and the birth control divide

On Monday, Sandra Fluke, Georgetown Law student and embattled advocate for contraceptive access went on The View to discuss the vile and vitriolic comments made about her by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. We’ll have more coverage later today about Sandra and this story but there’s one element of her interview that I want to draw attention to.

Right at the end of this clip, Fluke reminds us, pointedly, that her testimony was not about federal coverage for contraception. She was talking about Georgetown University’s private health care plan. This young woman is an eloquent and passionate advocate for women’s health, that much is clear. But the way she, and many others who talk about contraceptive coverage, differentiate private (as less controversial) and federal (as more controversial) funding is highly problematic and dangerous. Here’s why:

Talking about the value and importance of women’s health care in the context of who’s paying for it further solidifies the idea that taxpayers should get to veto health care procedures that they disapprove of. When advocates for access to contraception, abortion and any other women’s health service make a point of saying that they’re talking about private funding dollars and not federal dollars, as Fluke did, they reinforce the idea that there it’s more controversial to use federal money for reproductive health care.

This divide, between federal funding and private insurance companies including birth control, creates a very problematic class distinction between who should have access to the full range of reproductive health care. And when folks say, “Oh, this isn’t about government dollars!” they are saying that women who rely on the government for their health care could legitimately have their choices restricted because they are poor, or in the military, or otherwise rely on the government for health care.

Nevermind the compelling argument about pregnancy prevention actually being a fiscally responsible service for the government to provide, this is a moral issue, to my mind. It is a long standing issue with the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal dollars from providing women on Medicaid with abortion care, and it reared it’s head during our health health care reform debate about abortion. It also has potentially dangerous implications for Title X funding, which offers funding for family planning to clinics around the country.

So when exasperated advocates for birth control access boldly assert that this isn’t about tax dollars, they are doing a grave disservice to those women who rely on federal money for health care. These are poor women, and disproportionately women of color. It’s time to stop throwing these women under the bus in an effort to placate folks that think federal money shouldn’t be used for reproductive health care. That’s not reproductive rights, it does not fully support reproductive choice, it’s a short-sighted strategy and I would argue it’s not a feminist position at all.

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  • toongrrl

    U.N.I.T.Y. anyone?
    Love you Sandra Fluke

  • Steph Herold

    Right on, Eesha. Thank you for making this point.

  • athenia

    I think the problem is though that with the healthcare law, the government will be paying out subsidies for people to buy their own insurance which people look at essentially supporting abortion and contraception with taxpayer money etc.

    But at the end of the day, these people don’t care how a person gets contraception and abortion—they want to outlaw it all, so these discussions, I feel, don’t make too much of a difference.

  • rebeccajk42

    I disagree with this characterization. I think that it is fine, and in fact effective, to make a distinction when trying to make your point with someone who disagrees. The truth is, people may have different opinions regarding federal vs. private spending (that may be political/economic, not religious), and making a distinction between the two can bridge the conversation in order to answer the questions “What is it that we are really disagreeing about?” and “Why do you feel that there is a distinction to be made?” I don’t feel that it would be effective, when talking with those on “the other side,” to declare “You must agree with me 100% on everything or you are [not a feminist, anti-birth control, whatever]!” It seems to be better to start with “Can we at least agree on THIS part? Okay, now let’s move on to the next thing…”

    I do agree that you do want to go the “extra step” and say “Even though this situation is regarding private dollars, I also believe federal dollars can and should go towards birth control, for these reasons.” But it is still legit to make the distinction between this situation vs. that.

  • Stella

    I agree no one should throw poor women under the bus and it is both good policy and socially just to provide federal funding for contraceptives. But this is in fact a different issue, with different legal and logical considerations, than whether employers and universities should be able to selectively exclude them from private insurance plans.

    The old republican argument about “the government should not pay for anything” is simply inapplicable to the issue we are now debating, which is whether contraceptive coverage should be available to women via private contracts with insurance companies that the women pay for through pay check deductions or their college tuition. You can be a hardcore libertarian and still think women should have the right to contract directly with insurance co.s for birth control coverage. And even people who are deeply anti-tax and anti-government can get behind this point….assuming they are not also anti-reproductive self-determination.

    The fact the Republicans are against something that is effectively a private matter and not funded by the government exposes a key point: their general opposition to contraception is NOT about financial solvency or limited government, but instead is about hostility to women controlling their own bodies.

    I think its just a tad exclusionary to say that anyone who sees a legal and logical difference between these two issues (public funding for contraception and private funding) is not a feminist. Its a nuanced issue, especially through the lense of a law student like Ms. F.