WASHINGTON — House Democrats reignited the contraception policy debate with a high-profile hearing Thursday that landed Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke in the center of a national dialogue on reproductive health care.
Fluke was excluded from a similar hearing last week after House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican, told Democrats that she was not qualified to testify on a panel meant to discuss religious liberty, not specifically contraception.
Fluke, former president of Georgetown’s Law Students for Reproductive Justice, took sharp aim at Issa’s claim during Thursday’s unofficial hearing before the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
“I’m an American woman who uses contraception,” she said. “So let’s start there. That makes me qualified.”
Fluke’s testimony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that flowed into the hallway, marked a key moment of political theater for House Democrats seeking to depict their GOP colleagues as opposed to equal access to health care.
It also signaled House Democrats are far from finished with the hot-button issue in an election year.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee’s chairman, started by calling out Issa and other Republicans for trying to silence a relevant voice in the contentious discussion of whether religious institutions should provide contraceptive coverage in their employee’s health insurance plans.
Pelosi echoed New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s outrage that last week’s panel was entirely male when she asked, “Where are the women?” Maloney and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., walked out of that hearing after blasting Issa for barring female witnesses.
“The purpose of this meeting is one I wish didn’t have to exist,” Pelosi said in her opening remarks Thursday. “… In this debate, nothing can be more critical than hearing the voices of this nation’s women.”
In her testimony, Fluke recalled several instances when fellow students suffered because Georgetown’s health insurance policy does not cover contraception.
She told of a 32-year-old friend who developed a tennis-ball-sized cyst on her ovary, which was eventually removed through surgery. Fluke said the woman, who is gay and thus not seeking birth control to prevent accidental pregnancy, is now experiencing symptoms of early menopause, including night sweats and unexpected weight gain.
The friend’s requests for Georgetown’s health insurance to approve the surgery to remove the ovarian cyst in its earlier stages were repeatedly denied, Fluke told the committee.
“Some may say my friend’s tragic story is rare,” she said. “It’s not. I wish it were.”
Fluke said she was disappointed with Catholic leaders’ opposition to even the retooled version of President Barack Obama’s contraceptive coverage mandate.
Earlier this year, the Health and Human Services Department announced religious-affiliated institutions would have to include birth control coverage in their workers’ insurance plans under Obama’s health care reform law. After that ruling touched off fierce criticism from the Catholic Church and religious groups opposing contraception, Obama revised the policy so that insurance companies, not the religious organizations, will have to pay for employees’ birth control.
Fluke referenced the Jesuit creed meaning “care for the whole person” in arguing those institutions should have stuck up for students who overwhelming supported Obama’s policy in the first place.
A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday shows 54 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s tweak to the contraceptive coverage mandate.
“We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should’ve gone to school elsewhere,” Fluke said. “…Ours is not a war against the church. It is a struggle against the health care we need.”
Holmes Norton said Fluke’s testimony sounded like a “young lawyer ready to practice.” Holmes Norton, a Georgetown Law professor, added she played no role in advocating for Fluke as a witness.
The hearing also served as a public forum for Pelosi to rail against Republican leaders who she said blocked her request to hold the event in the House Recording Studio. That venue would have provided greater media exposure for the snubbed witness.
“It’s amazing what lengths they will go to so that they don’t have to listen to the voices of women,” Pelosi said.
Still, reporters and camera crews lined the walls and aisles of the hearing room in the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday.
In an email Thursday, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill told reporters that the House Administration Committee denied the Democratic leadership’s request to use the House Recording Studio for the Fluke hearing.
“This leaves us only to think that the House Republican leadership is acting out yet again to silence women on the topic of women’s health,” Hammill wrote.
CNN reported Thursday that Dan Weiser, spokesman for the Chief Administrative Officer’s office, said Pelosi’s request was shot down because the House Recording Studio does not cover unofficial hearings organized by one party.
A spokesman for Issa said the congressman was out of town Thursday and not aware of the House hearing involving Fluke.