President Obama called a Georgetown University law student on her cellphone Friday in an attempt to seize the political high ground in the national debate over contraception.
Framing the issue squarely as a fight for women’s rights, Obama called Sandra Fluke to express solidarity after she was vilified by conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh for her public support of the administration’s health-care rule. The rule requires employers to provide free contraception to women as part of their health insurance coverage.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Fluke said Obama was concerned about her in the face of what he called Limbaugh’s “very inappropriate” remarks. “He expressed concern for me personally,” she said. “I assured him I was doing okay despite the personal attacks.”
Fluke said she viewed the Limbaugh remarks, and others like them, as an assault on women’s rights. “I realized very quickly what this was — an attempt to silence me and to silence all women,” she said.
Obama’s phone call roiled a debate that had been raging for weeks and which came to a head Thursday on Capitol Hill when the Senate defeated a bill intended to stymie the administration’s regulatory approach to the issue.
Republicans accused the administration of waging a war on religious freedom for compelling some institutions to make contraception available as part of their health-care coverage.
Although churches and other houses of worship were exempt, the rule sparked an intensive debate, which caused the administration to partially retreat.
Democrats fought back against Republicans’ characterization of the contraceptive rule. The Obama call to Fluke was another effort to turn the tables by appealing to women, many of whom see the fight as one about control over their health and bodies.
Limbaugh had referred to Fluke as a “slut” and prostitute after she testified at a forum hosted by congressional Democrats in support of the rule. Some Republicans quickly distanced themselves from Limbaugh, and at least two commercial sponsors ended their association with his radio show.
Fluke has testified that Georgetown students must pay the full amount for birth control at the Jesuit school; its student health-care plans do not cover it. Since then, Democrats have used Fluke’s cause to energize liberal activists and denounce Republicans in floor speeches in Congress, news conferences and fundraising pitches.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called Limbaugh’s comments “reprehensible” and said the president phoned Fluke because he “wanted to offer his support, express his disappointment, that she was the subject of an inappropriate personal attack.”
Fluke, 30, was a hot media commodity Friday. She took Obama’s call moments before a live interview on MSNBC, and she made the rounds among television networks, quickly becoming the Democrats’ favored face in the debate.
A past president of the Georgetown University’s Law Students for Reproductive Justice organization, Fluke had publicly supported the administration’s health-care rule during a discussion at the National Press Club, after which congressional Democrats invited her to testify at a House committee hearing two weeks ago. But the Republican-led committee denied her bid to speak.
In e-mails to donors over the past two days, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) denounced conservatives’ criticism of Fluke as “vicious.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called it “despicable,” and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee labeled it “vile misogyny.”
Pelosi said that she helped raise $1.6 million in one week for a “women’s health rapid response fund” and solicited signatures to an “End the War on Women” petition.
“It’s bad enough that women’s rights and access to health care have been under increasing attack over the past few weeks. But two days ago things took an even uglier turn,” Gillibrand wrote to donors Friday. “Rush Limbaugh, the voice of the ultraconservative right, issued one of the most vile tirades against women I’ve ever heard.”
And even as GOP leaders distanced themselves from Limbaugh, they sought to stem the blow-back by accusing Democrats of trying to exploit the situation for financial and political gain.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) “obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation,” a spokesman said.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who had barred Fluke from speaking at the hearing, sent a letter to committee Democrats calling the focus on Limbaugh’s comments “self-serving and dismissive of other inappropriate comments and attacks on Americans of faith.”
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia sent an e-mail to students and faculty in which he supported Fluke’s “right to respectful free expression.”
DeGioia wrote that “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.”
At the center of the political storm, Fluke told her story again and again Friday. A friend fielded media requests on two cellphones as Fluke spoke on camera with ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
Fluke said she had also been buoyed by a call from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and dozens of encouraging notes.
“The e-mails I get from people who say, ‘I’m a 63-year-old grandmother, and I support what you’re doing, and I’m in support of this for my granddaughters,’ those are the most touching,” Fluke said, crossing I Street NW toward the Hay-Adams hotel. “And the women who say, ‘This is the time when I needed contraception. This is what it meant to me in my life.’ That’s what keeps me going.”
Outside the hotel, Fluke stepped into a black Lincoln Town Car, which whisked her away to an appearance on CNN.
Staff writers N.C. Aizenmann, Jenna Johnson, Ed O’Keefe, Nia Malika-Henderson and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.