Wading further into an escalating contraception battle that has put Republicans on the defensive, President Obama on Friday called Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who this week was derided as a “slut” and a “prostitute” by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for her defense of rules mandating that employer-provided insurance plans cover the cost of birth control.
The call by Obama -- a rare one from the president to a private individual -- comes amid an intensifying political fight over religious-affiliated institutions and contraception, a battle in which Democrats accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women” and Republicans say that Obama is working to curtail “religious liberty.”
The president’s call is a signal that the White House, like Democrats more broadly, believes it has the upper hand on a hot-button issue that does not appear to be leaving the political spotlight anytime soon.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Friday afternoon, Fluke discussed the call from Obama, which took place shortly before she appeared on the program.
“He encouraged me and supported me and thanked me for speaking out about the concerns of American women,” Fluke told Mitchell of the call with Obama. “And what was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud. And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me. So, I just appreciated that very much.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “The president called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke because he wanted to offer his support, express his disappointment, that she was the subject of an inappropriate personal attack and thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on public policy.”
Carney said they spoke “for several minutes. It was a good conversation. Like a lot of people said the personal attacks directed her way are inappropriate. The fact that political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough. It’s worse when directed at a private citizen simply expressing her views on a matter of public policy.”
Asked what Obama thought about Limbaugh’s comments, Carney said, “They were reprehensible. They were disappointing. It is reprehensible that those kinds of personal and crude attacks could be leveled at someone like this young law school student who was simply expressing her opinion on a matter of public policy and doing it with a great deal of poise.”
Democrats had originally tapped Fluke to testify at a House hearing earlier this month on the Obama administration’s decision regarding religious-affiliated employers and contraception coverage.
But Republicans had said at the time that Fluke’s name had been submitted too late to appear at the hearing; they also argued that the hearing was about religious freedom more broadly and that Fluke could not testify because she was not a member of the clergy.
Last week, Fluke delivered testimony before a House Democratic-convened panel on Capitol Hill on the cost to female students of birth control that is not covered by health plans provided by some religious-affiliated institutions.
Fluke said in her testimony that some students at Georgetown spend as much as $1,000 per year out-of-pocket on contraception since birth control is not covered by the university’s health care plan.
Then, on his radio show, Limbaugh took aim at Fluke, who he called a “feminazi” and a “slut.”
“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it,” Limbaugh had said. “We want you post the videos online so we can all watch.”
The comments by Limbaugh led to a media firestorm. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has called Limbaugh’s remarks “inappropriate,” and Georgetown University President John DeGioia issued a statement on Friday defending Fluke.
“She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse,” DeGioia said of Fluke. “And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position – including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels – responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”
In her interview with MSNBC’s Mitchell Friday afternoon, Fluke cited DeGioia’s comments as “an example of what kind of model we should look to in our national discourse, because clearly the president of the university and I disagree about the issues, but we’re both able to handle this in a civil manner.”
“There’s been some highs and some lows,” Fluke said of her past several weeks in the media spotlight. “Yes. So, it’s been quite a journey. And I’m just happy that what seems to be happening in the process is that America is hearing the voices of women affected by lack of contraception coverage and who will benefit from this policy. And that’s what’s really most important to me; that’s why I’ve been working on this for years, honestly.”
Asked by Mitchell how her parents responded to the controversy and Limbaugh’s comments, Fluke said that they were “certainly hurt” but also “very proud of me.”
“They’re actually of a different political persuasion than I am, so I think that is emblematic of the fact that broadly Americans agree that women need access to basic health care that’s important to prevent medical disasters and to prevent pregnancy. ... I would certainly say it’s been a learning experience. I recommend hands-on experience for law students. Not all of this experience I would recommend,” she said.
The 2012 GOP presidential contenders did not immediately weigh in on Obama’s call.
Asked by a reporter about Limbaugh’s comments on Fluke, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said at a campaign event in Chillicothe, Ohio, that he’s “not for anyone calling someone a bad name.” But he did not elaborate on the controversy.
Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson and David Nakamura also contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.