It was hailed as the Equalizer, one of the 10 most important public health discoveries of the 20th Century. Songs have been penned in its honor. TIME Magazine put it on its April 1967 cover. Many sociologists directly connect it to a surge in female graduation rates, college attendance, professional employment and higher income levels.
Since the 1960s, modern contraception has allowed women to stop asking the question: My family or my career?
Sandra Fluke wondered how many of the several hundred Albany Law School students in the crowd she spoke to Thursday were ready to be parents. Women can be great mothers and great students. Some can master both at the same time. But for many, it’s one or the other.
“For many women, including myself, we feel it’s important to plan a career in conjunction with planning a family,” said Fluke. “Whether or not we have access to affordable contraception shouldn’t make that decision for us. We want the opportunity to pursue our goals and dreams in a way that’s not based on whether we’re a man or a woman.”
The women’s rights activist and inadvertent political “celebrity” was in Albany on Thursday to participate in a four-hour symposium, titled “From the Page to the Pill: Women’s Reproductive Rights and the Law.” The Dean Alexander Moot Courtroom was packed with students, professors and others for the event, put on each year by the Albany Law Journal of Science & Technology.
Fluke was one of several panelists to discuss and debate the legislation currently affecting women’s reproductive rights and whether the law can and should mandate health insurance providers to cover women’s contraceptives.
Of course, quite a few people were eager for her to address the elephant in the room. But the recent Georgetown Law School grad wanted the crowd to hear first about the students on her former campus who couldn’t get birth control under the Catholic university’s health insurance policy.
Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Fluke shared it with the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee one week after Republicans excluded her from testifying at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting back in February.
Fluke had a close friend at school with polycystic ovary syndrome. To treat it, she needed contraceptive hormones that cost more than $100 a month. She sought coverage through the student health insurance plan, but was repeatedly delayed or denied in getting the medicine.
“The insurance company frequently believed students were falsifying medical records or lying to their doctors about why they really wanted the contraception,” recalled Fluke. “So whenever someone tried to gain access to it, there would be a long investigation.”
So for several months, her friend paid out of pocket for the contraceptive hormones. Eventually, she couldn’t afford to anymore. And after a few months without treating her polycystic ovary syndrome, the young woman woke up in the middle of the night in terrible pain.
A softball-sized cyst had formed on one of her ovaries, and it couldn’t be removed without removing the entire ovary. The 32-year-old woman will face reproductive challenges from here on out, and wonders if she’ll slip into early menopause.
“This is perhaps the most extreme consequence of not having access to birth control,” said Fluke to an enthralled crowd Thursday. “But it’s not all that unusual for women to need access for medical reasons beyond pregnancy. And that is why I went before members of Congress to testify. It wasn’t about my ‘sluttyness.’ ”
The crowd laughed, but Fluke still deals with name calling from the highly publicized incident with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
In response to her testimony that contraceptives can cost a woman thousands of dollars during law school, Limbaugh asked on air what it makes Fluke if she wants to be paid to have sex.
“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
He continued, saying a compromise to free birth control would be the university purchasing all of its female students “as much aspirin to put between their knees as possible.”
Backlash was immediate and intense. Limbaugh eventually apologized for his remarks. But the nation is still talking about birth control months later and into the weeks leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Fluke has used the scrutiny to canvass the nation and speak on reproductive issues.
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