For decades, Georgetown University law students have led the push to have the student health-insurance plan cover contraception.
Sandra Fluke fit the profile of those who have gone before her: Law students are typically older than Georgetown’s undergraduates, less likely to be Catholic at the Catholic institution, and more likely to rely on school-provided insurance.
But unlike those others who were part of a running campus controversy, Fluke became part of a heated and highly personal national debate when she agreed to testify before a congressional committee last month.
Fluke said she anticipated criticism but not personal attacks from prominent pundits including Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly has called her a “slut,” and from hundreds of people who have typed even more offensive slurs on Twitter.
“I understood that I’m stepping into the public eye,” said Fluke, 30, a third-year student studying public interest law. “But this reaction is so out of the bounds of acceptable discourse . . . These types of words shouldn’t be applied to anyone.”
Limbaugh, a conservative radio talk show host, was criticized by prominent Democrats and Republicans. A handful of companies suspended their commercials on his show in protest and by Saturday, Limbaugh apologized in a statement on his Web site.
In the statement, he said “my choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir.”
Fluke appeared on the national television circuit on Friday explaining her position. Meanwhile, her cell phone buzzed with calls from friends, classmates and supporters, including President Obama.
Fluke (pronounced as if it rhymes with “look”) said she was not a stranger to criticism women can face advocating for causes related to their sexual health and relationships.
She graduated from Cornell University in 2003 with two degrees, including one in feminist, gender and sexuality studies.
Fluke then worked for several years at a domestic violence center in New York City and successfully lobbied for legislation that would grant protective orders to unmarried victims of domestic abuse, including teens and LGBT individuals, according to her biography on the Georgetown Law Web site.
As a co-president of the Georgetown chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Fluke and other law students have met through the years with several top Georgetown officials to discuss the student health-care plan.
“They made very clear to us that they weren’t going to do this until the law made them do it,” said Lizzy Watson, 23, a second-year law student who is also a member of the group.
On Georgetown’s main campus, some student groups pass out free condoms but purchasing contraceptives of any sort requires venturing off campus, often to a pharmacy about half a mile away.
Undergraduates have also taken on this issue, and in March 2010 three students put tape over their mouths and chained themselves to a statue of the Catholic college’s founder as part of a campaign they called, “Plan A.”
In early February, Fluke — who said she is Protestant — joined students from other universities for a news conference about birth control coverage at Catholic institutions. That appearance caught the eye of staff members working for Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who asked her to testify at a hearing on Feb. 16.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would not approve Fluke as a witness, angering Democrats who then arranged for Fluke to read her testimony at a forum on Feb. 23.
Fluke did not talk about her own sex life or use of contraceptives as she spoke that day. Instead, she cited experiences that she said law classmates had shared: Students who pay as much as $1,000 a year out-of-pocket for a birth-control prescription, a married woman who stopped taking the pill because she couldn’t afford it, and a friend who needed the prescription for a medical condition unrelated to pregnancy but gave up battling to get it.
“We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere” to receive contraception coverage, Fluke’s testimony stated.
“We refuse to pick between a quality education and our health.”
Limbaugh brought up Fluke’s statement on his talk show on Wednesday.
He equated the demand for coverage of contraception with getting paid to have sex: “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”
The next day, Limbaugh again brought up Fluke on his show, saying to Fluke and other women, “Here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and 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.”
About her own use of contraceptives, Fluke said: “I’m not going to discuss my personal life for very obvious reasons.”
As her week ended, Fluke remained focused on her points as she spoke about the rights of women and the need for civil dialogue instead of name-calling.
“I did not think that this kind of concern could be controversial at this point,” she said.