A Pox on Both Houses in the Contraception Controversy

Liberals and conservatives alike need to stop circling the wagons in defense of their own.


Sometimes, I catch a lot of flak for taking a "pox on both your houses" stance in political conflicts. But given the way so many political conflicts unfold, what else is one to do?

Take the firestorm over Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke's congressional testimony about health insurance coverage for contraception and talk show king Rush Limbaugh's rants calling her a slut. There are good reasons to question Fluke's image as a courageous Everywoman—just as there are good arguments against the contraceptive coverage mandate, particularly for faith-based institutions (such as Georgetown, a Jesuit university). But now, we're all discussing Limbaugh's sexist slurs and squabbling over who's got worse misogynists, the right or the left.

Let's start with Fluke. She is not, as many conservative blogs  have claimed, a "fake " who was misrepresented as a random 23-year-old student when she is really a 30-year-old pro-choice activist: Fluke's role as former president of Georgetown's Law Students for Reproductive Justice was widely  mentioned  in the media  when she testified, and the misstatement of her age was one TV reporter's  isolated error.

However, it is true that most of the initial coverage of Fluke did not reflect the extent of her political activism, which goes far beyond reproductive issues. She has an undergraduate degree in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality studies, more ideological cult than academic discipline, and a post-college career spent entirely in women's advocacy groups. 

It is also true that Fluke's testimony—particularly her claims that 40 percent of female law students at Georgetown struggle to pay for contraception, at up to $1,000 a year—deserved critical scrutiny, like all "advocacy statistics." The strongest point scored by Fluke's conservative critics is that a month's supply of birth control pills costs $9 at a Target pharmacy near Georgetown.

This critique has been challenged by The New Republic's health policy expert Jonathan Cohn. Cohn notes that the Pill is not a one-size-fits-all drug: thus, some women cannot take pills with  estrogen. Yet, aside from the fact that fewer than 3 percent of Pill users  take the estrogen-free "mini-pill," generic versions of such pills can be bought for $30-$35 a month—far below Fluke's $80 estimate. While Cohn implies that a generic product is a "different drug" than the pricey brand-name one, it is in fact the same drug (except for the packaging and, sometimes, the inactive ingredients). Women's health experts such as Mary Jane Minkin, co-author of The Yale Guide to Women's Reproductive Health, agree that generic birth control pills are as good as their brand-name counterparts. Indeed, under the Affordable Care Act, co-pays may continue to be charged  for brand-name birth control pills if generic equivalents are available.

Finally, Cohn points out that many women rely on other birth control methods such as the IUD or hormonal shots. Yet the chart he reproduces shows that these methods cost $200-$600 a year. That's without many cost-savers available to women with limited income, from services at Planned Parenthood to discounts offered by drug companies (such as Pfizer, which markets the Depo-Provera injection).

And what of Fluke's story of her friend who lost an ovary because Georgetown's health plan would not pay for the Pill to treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome?  Fluke acknowledged that the college policy does cover contraceptive pills for medical problems; yet, she claimed, her friend was denied approval on the suspicion that she was seeking birth control—even though she's gay.

It is hard to question such a painful story without seeming insensitive; and yet no heartstring-tugging tale told by an advocate should be taken at face value. If the incident happened as Fluke described, her friend had excellent cause for a lawsuit. But did it? Were there other complicating factors? Was the woman's condition not treatable with generic versions of the Pill—which, contrary to the assertions of Fluke's supporters, are sometimes prescribed for it? We don't know. Georgetown officials have not commented on the matter (when I contacted the school's media office, I received a response asking when my deadline was, but my follow-up emails went unanswered). 

In any case, the focus on medical uses of birth control pills is somewhat misleading, since Fluke champions a much broader mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives.

All of this could and should have been brought up by those who believe this mandate violates religious institutions' freedom of conscience. What should not have happened was Rush Limbaugh targeting Fluke with tirades about her imagined sex life, replete with epithets like "slut" and "prostitute." And what should not be happening now is some conservative pundits and activists circling the wagons around the rightly embattled talk show host.

It is sad to see bloggers I respect (such as former Frum Forum contributor John Guardiano) argue that Limbaugh's comments, however crass, were based on irrefutable logic: Fluke wants to be paid to have sex, and that makes her a prostitute. (I wonder what Guardiano, a former Marine, would have thought of a similarly impeccable argument that American soldiers are "hit men" because they are paid to kill people.) It is equally sad to see Limbaugh praised for his tepid apology, which came when advertisers began to flee and followed three days of attacks. 

Limbaugh did not simply call Fluke nasty names. He harped endlessly on the notion that she must be having nonstop sex to be paying so much for contraception, repeatedly excoriated her alleged promiscuity, and offered to buy "all the women at Georgetown … aspirin to put between their knees" for birth control. Despite his claims that his objection was not to Fluke's sexual activity but to her desire to have it subsidized, his comments clearly came across as an attack on female "unchastity."

Then there's the "liberals do it too and get away with it" defense.  Yes, there has been some vile misogyny on the left toward conservative women (notably Sarah Palin). Generally, the perpetrators of these slurs have been far less visible than Limbaugh. The more visible ones, such as the chronically sexist Bill Maher of HBO's Real Time and Hillary-hating MSNBC host Chris Matthews, have been harshly criticized by many fellow liberals. 

What's more, attempts to pit Limbaugh's male chauvinist piggery against that of assorted leftists tend to ignore the fact that this was not Limbaugh's first offense (take his jokes about Hillary Clinton having a "testicle lockbox" for emasculating men) and that he also has company on the right. In 2008, singer and conservative activist Ted Nugent brandished two rifles onstage during a concert and invited Hillary Clinton to "ride this into the sunset, you worthless bitch." Fox News host Sean Hannity defended Nugent's stunt  as free speech, and Nugent has remained a frequent guest on Fox and on Glenn Beck's radio show.

The only effective way to police misogyny (and other ugliness) in politics is to call out the offenders in one's own camp. Instead, we have each side denouncing the other, while "our S.O.B." tends to a pass. Radio talk show host Mark Levin's message to Limbaugh's conservative critics is, "Do not ever throw our leaders under the bus." Such an attitude is a sure way to end up with leaders behaving badly.

Guardiano's piece on the controversy was titled, "Sarah Fluke Is No Martyr, And Limbaugh Is No Monster." Monster? No, but neither is Limbaugh the martyr some of his defenders make him out to be. The only real victim here is the conservative movement—and the quality of our discourse.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a columnist at RealClearPolitics, where a version of this article originally appeared.