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A Pox on Both Houses in Limbaugh-Fluke Affair

A Pox on Both Houses in Limbaugh-Fluke Affair

By Cathy Young - March 10, 2012

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% 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. Many health insurance plans that currently cover contraception pay only for the cheap generic pills; this is unlikely to change under the Obama health care law.

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 Depo-Provera).

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).

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Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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