Sandra Fluke Takes Fight for Women’s Health to DNC After Insulted for Contraception Advocacy
Sandra Fluke became famous after Republicans barred her from testifying at a congressional hearing in favor of insurance coverage for contraception. Right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh blasted Fluke on his program, calling her a "slut" and saying she should be required to post sex videos online. The episode prompted President Obama to personally call Fluke to offer words of encouragement. Six months later, Fluke took center stage Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention with a prime-time address. Fluke joins us to discuss the fight for reproductive rights, her support for Obama’s re-election, and her future plans as a women’s health activist.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, "Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency," Democracy Now!'s special daily two hours of coverage from the Democratic and Republican National Convention, inside and out. I'm Amy Goodman.
Speakers on the second night of the Democratic National Convention Wednesday included Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and former President Bill Clinton, who gave the keynote. But the speaker who took center stage at the top of the 10:00 prime-time hour isn’t a politician. She’s a recent law school graduate who became famous when she was insulted by Rush Limbaugh after she attempted to testify at a congressional hearing in favor of insurance coverage for contraception.
Sandra Fluke was a student at the Georgetown University Law Center back in February, when Republicans barred her from speaking on a House panel about the Obama administration’s birth control mandate. Instead, the panel featured only men. Three Democrats walked out in protest. The next day, Sandra Fluke appeared on Democracy Now!, and she later had a chance to testify before lawmakers.
But she was unexpectedly rocketed to fame six months ago when conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh blasted her on his program, calling her a "slut" and saying she should be required to post sex videos of herself online. The episode prompted President Obama to personally call Sandra Fluke to offer words of encouragement. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, issued only mild criticism of Rush Limbaugh’s insult, saying it was, quote, "not the language I would have used," he said.
Sandra Fluke has gone on to become a leading activist for women’s rights. We’ll be joined by Sandra Fluke in just a few minutes. But first, let’s go to excerpts from her speech Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention.
SANDRA FLUKE: During this campaign, we have heard about two profoundly different futures that could await women in this country and how one of those futures looks like an offensive, obsolete relic of our past. Warnings of that future are not distractions. They are not imagined. That future could become real. In that America, your new president could be a man who stands by when a public figure tries to silence a private citizen with hateful slurs, a man who won’t stand up to those slurs or to any of the extreme bigoted voices in his own party. It would be an America in which you have a new vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms, an America in which states humiliate women by forcing us to endure invasive ultrasounds that we don’t want and our doctors say that we don’t need, an America in which access to birth control is controlled by people who will never use it.
We’ve also seen another America that we could choose. In that America, we’d have the right to choose. It’s an America in which no one can charge us more than men for the exact same health insurance; in which no one can deny us affordable access to the cancer screenings that could save our lives; in which we decide when to start our families; an America in which our president, when he hears that a young woman has been verbally attacked, thinks of his daughters, not his delegates or his donors; and in which our president stands with all women, and strangers come together and reach out and lift her up. And then, instead of trying to silence her, you invite me here, and you give me this microphone to amplify our voice. That’s the difference.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Georgetown University Law Center graduate Sandra Fluke, speaking at the Democratic National Convention last night in prime time. Well, we’re joined now in Charlotte, North Carolina, by Sandra. She is now a prominent women’s health activist.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sandra.
SANDRA FLUKE: It’s good to be back.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s quite something, what you did last night. You were the first speaker in prime time on the national networks last night. In fact, you were going to be earlier in the evening, is that right?
SANDRA FLUKE: Originally, but the schedule has always been flexible. And, you know, I like to take it as it comes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, I think it was a clear, deliberate message on the part of the Democratic Party to move you back, because it was very significant and, clearly, carefully chosen and orchestrated over the last few days who got to speak at that 10:00 Eastern time hour. So you were the first to address the nation last night, speaking to millions of people. You graduated from law school, what, a month ago?
SANDRA FLUKE: May, just a few months ago, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And you took your bar a few weeks ago?
SANDRA FLUKE: Yeah, at the end of July, the California bar.
AMY GOODMAN: This is quite a catapulting of you and your issues into the national and global spotlight. Talk about how it all began.
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, it really did begin with my friends on campus and with the other women I was organizing with. And that’s what I think has sometimes gotten lost in all of this, is that I was, you know, a, quote-unquote, "regular person," whatever that means, who looked around me at the lives of the women I knew and the women I cared about, and, together, we decided we needed to make a change and that we needed to stand up for the Affordable Care Act and talk about what it would mean to women to have affordable access to the healthcare that they need—not just contraception, but breast cancer screenings and cervical cancer screenings and assistance with breast feeding and immunizations for their children. So, that’s really where it all got started.
AMY GOODMAN: And how was it that you were approached to speak before a House panel pushing insurance coverage of contraception?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, we had come together as students at several campuses because we wanted the world to know how this legislation would impact students and how much it would mean to us. And I guess I did OK at the press conference, so I got a call through the national Law Students for Reproductive Justice organization that they were interested in someone coming forward and sharing some of our experience with that House committee. And I said, "Well, I have immigration class, but I guess I’ll miss that day."
AMY GOODMAN: And so you go to speak before Darrell Issa’s committee.
SANDRA FLUKE: That’s right, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, unfortunately, Chairman Issa felt that it was more important to hear from those five male voices than to hear from a woman and to hear from someone who wanted to share the stories of the women who would be impacted by the policy. And that’s just such a—I mean, not only such a sexist move to not hear from a woman about women’s health, but a failing of democracy to not hear from someone who wants to talk about what the impact is going to be on the citizens of this country.
AMY GOODMAN: So the women legislators walked out?
SANDRA FLUKE: A few of them did, yes. They were—
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel?
SANDRA FLUKE: You know, it was a—it was a pretty—it was a pretty stunning morning. I was nervous to be getting ready to testify, but I was really heartened to see that there was some press I could talk to so that I would be able to share what I had hoped to share with the members of Congress. And then, of course, Leader Pelosi arranged for me to give that testimony before a caucus, before a committee of the Democratic Caucus. And that was just a tremendous move to make sure that the country heard about this and that members of Congress heard how important this bill was to young women.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play that famous clip now of Rush Limbaugh insulting Sandra on his radio program in late February.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.
AMY GOODMAN: The next day, Rush Limbaugh ratcheted up his rhetoric against Sandra Fluke.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: So, Ms. Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Rush Limbaugh calling for you, Sandra Fluke, to post sex videos of yourself online.
SANDRA FLUKE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened after this?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I didn’t post any sex videos in response. I think at that moment I had a choice to make about whether I wanted to step back from the public spotlight or if I was going to continue to speak out. And I thought it was really important to continue to speak out, not only because I cared about this policy and I wanted more and more people to understand what it would do for American women, but also because I really wanted to make sure that young girls in our country didn’t see this as a cautionary tale, that if you came forward and you spoke publicly about something that you cared about, specifically about your reproductive health, about anything in any way remotely connected to your sexual health, that this is the kind of thing that would happen to you. So I wanted to show them that these types of sexist attacks are something you can stand up to and that you can call it out for what it is, and when you do, people will support you, and people will back you up. And so, I hope that that’s the message that’s come out of this.
AMY GOODMAN: When did President Obama call you?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I think it was just a few days after Rush began speaking that way.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say?
SANDRA FLUKE: He—
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you, by the way?
SANDRA FLUKE: I was at MSNBC. I was about to go on the air, and it was a bit of a rushed fiasco. I kind of had to rip off my microphone and go running.
AMY GOODMAN: And they told you the president was on the line?
SANDRA FLUKE: That’s right, yes. I accidentally took over Chris Matthews’ office, because I just went into the first one I could find. But the president was, you know, very, very caring. And he—I tried to thank him for the policy. I tried to talk to him about what signing that bill had done for American women.
AMY GOODMAN: And the bill exactly said?
SANDRA FLUKE: The Affordable Care Act, that requires that all private insurance that women pay the deductibles for would cover our needs, including contraception, and that if it’s a religiously affiliated organization, their money doesn’t need to go toward the contraception, but the women on that plan need to have access to it. And, of course, churches and houses of worship are exempt from that requirement. So I tried to talk to him about how important that was, because I’m a policy person, it’s the president, I want to bend his ear, right? But he—you know, he said, "No, no, I want to make sure how you’re doing. I want to make sure you’re OK. And I want to tell you that your parents should be proud of you," which was very nice to hear.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mitt Romney had a different response, and I want to play the clip of Mitt Romney back in March responding to a reporter’s question about Rush Limbaugh, who called you a slut and a prostitute.
REPORTER: Governor, anything on Rush?
MITT ROMNEY: I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used. I’m focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today, and that’s why I’m here talking about jobs in Ohio.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney speaking during a visit—I think he was in Cleveland—in March, saying it was an unfortunate choice of—it’s not the words he would have used?
SANDRA FLUKE: Right, right. You know, I want to be clear that it’s not that my feelings are hurt by Mr. Romney not standing up for me. I don’t really need that from him. But what I do need, as a citizen in this country, is to know that someone who wants to be president, who wants to be a leader, is at least able to stand up to voices in his own party. And that’s what really I found telling and very disappointing about it, was that he was, you know, beholden to those extremists. And that’s what really concerns me in terms of his policy decisions. We’ve seen him fall in line and take much more conservative positions in order to keep, you know, those donors and those voices in his party happy. And I think that’s the kind of decisions he would make in office, as well. And that’s certainly not a good sign for women’s health, women’s access to a fair pay and so many issues that are important to citizens in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the Republican Party ever reach out to you after that? Did Mitt Romney or Ann Romney—
SANDRA FLUKE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: —after he said those aren’t the words he would have used to describe you, "slut" and "prostitute"?
SANDRA FLUKE: Right, right, as opposed to maybe not having those ideas, to begin with, right? No, I didn’t hear from anyone directly. And that was fine. There were some Republican officials who said that those comments were inappropriate and did take a stand.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, a boycott was organized against Rush Limbaugh, a lot of pressure brought on advertisers, bringing him to the point—I mean, scores of corporations—
SANDRA FLUKE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —pulled out of his—supporting his radio program. Can you explain what happened there?
SANDRA FLUKE: You know, I was really—I was glad to see Americans taking a stand and using their pocketbooks and their wallets to talk about their values in that way, because that is clearly so important to advancing progressive causes. And I really felt that it was not just on behalf of me, but on behalf of a lot of other people who have been attacked by Mr. Limbaugh and a statement against the types of hateful rhetoric that he engages in regularly. So, it was interesting to see that some condemned it as against his right to have free speech. Of course he has a right to have free speech and to say what he wants to say on the radio, but all of those Americans also have a right to speech and a right to express their disagreement and their concern with his rhetoric.
AMY GOODMAN: After I don’t know how many companies said they were pulling out of supporting his program, clearly stunned by the response, he apologized?
SANDRA FLUKE: He did. It was—
AMY GOODMAN: Did he call you?
SANDRA FLUKE: No, and I’m not interested in hearing from him personally. I think he and I have had enough of a personal relationship at this point, and I’m not—I’m not looking to elevate it at all. So—so, no, I didn’t hear from him personally.
AMY GOODMAN: But what was the apology?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, what I found problematic about the apology was that he apologized for a few select words, but, again, not for the ideas behind them, not for conveying the idea that a woman who uses birth control or a woman who needs it for medical reasons or even a woman who is sexually active is somehow a prostitute or a slut. He didn’t apologize for the mischaracterizations of my testimony, which were rampant. I was testifying about women’s medical needs aside from preventing pregnancy. And he included actually, you know, false information in the statement in the apology, furthering the idea that I was the part of an entitlement generation that just wanted free birth control. And it was—yeah, so it wasn’t particularly satisfying, but that’s all right.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, we come to the Republican convention and right before it, where women’s issues and reproductive rights were again elevated—
SANDRA FLUKE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —because of the comments of the senatorial candidate in Missouri who’s challenging Claire McCaskill, Todd Akin, talking about "legitimate rape" and when—and that if—the fact that a woman does not get pregnant if she in fact has been the victim of a legitimate rape. Your response to that?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I found Mr. Akin’s comments to be clearly very disturbing, but—and I do want to acknowledge that they were really hard to hear for a lot of women in this country, and for some men, as well, who have been the victims of sexual assault. And that was difficult for them. But I appreciate that it allowed us to have a conversation about his record in Congress, a record that he shares with Mr. Ryan, where Mr. Ryan and Mr. Akin co-sponsored bills.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan.
SANDRA FLUKE: That’s right, exactly—where they co-sponsored bills that would draw those kinds of distinctions between different rape victims and whether or not they deserve access to the abortion care that they need. And it also allowed us to talk about that Dr. Willke, who has put forward these ideas about women’s bodies somehow being able to prevent impregnation because it was a sexual assault, is someone who Mitt Romney called, quote, "an important surrogate" for his pro-life agenda. So, that’s important for folks in this country to know before they go into the voting booth. And it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a way of seeing more closely what’s happening in Congress, so I’m glad it brought it to light.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to share with you a comment about candidate Todd Akin, when I asked one of the Minnesota—rather, Missouri delegates at the Republican convention about his colleague. This is a man named George Engelbach, who is an Abe Lincoln look-alike.
SANDRA FLUKE: Oh, really?
AMY GOODMAN: So he got a lot of attention at the convention because he truly looks like Abe Lincoln, so a lot of the press interviewed him. But as we spoke, I asked him about Todd Akin, who he had served with in the Missouri legislature, and I asked him about Akin’s comment and what he thought.
GEORGE ENGELBACH: He said what he said, I feel, in a wrong connotation. It’s documented that there is a relatively low conception rate with highly traumatic rapes, rapes that are just brutal. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Is there another kind of rape?
GEORGE ENGELBACH: Certainly.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the other kind of rape?
GEORGE ENGELBACH: Well, if you’d, for example, rape some girl or lady that was sort of inebriated, maybe a little bit high on drugs or something like that, that’s going on all the time, "slip a Mickey," as we call it. When I grew up, we called them "slipped somebody a Mickey." And, you know, it’s non—it’s not consensual, and it still happens. And that’s the rape that is really hard to prove, many times, but—
AMY GOODMAN: That is former Missouri legislator George Engelbach, who was a Republican delegate at the convention in Tampa. Sandra Fluke, your response?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I think what’s—one thing that’s interesting about what he said is his use of pronouns, if you listen to the "we"s in what he said. "We do this." It’s really an interesting look at the rape culture in this country, that a man speaks about it in those terms. And the distinctions between a violent physical assault and what is still a violent assault by using drugs or when a woman is inebriated sends such a problematic message to young men in this country about what’s permissible, what’s acceptable, and also to young women about whether or not they’re a legitimate victim and how they should feel about what may have happened to them. And I do want to be clear that there are also young men who are victims of sexual assault, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sandra Fluke, how did—what was your response last night after you took center stage at the Democratic convention the night before President Obama gives his acceptance speech tonight?
SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I was—I was just focused on making sure that I got my message out to the American people about why it’s so critical that we elect President Obama in November, that we re-elect him, because not only do we face a very dangerous future under Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan with their policies on women’s health, but we have unfinished business. We haven’t yet reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. We haven’t passed the Paycheck Fairness Act. So, we need President Obama’s leadership for another four years to finish that agenda for women, to keep moving us forward. So, I was just really heartened to be able to speak to such a supportive and amazing audience and be able to talk about the president that I believe in.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans now? I mean, you just graduated from law school.
SANDRA FLUKE: I did. I did.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?
SANDRA FLUKE: I am 31.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were one of the youngest speakers at this convention.
SANDRA FLUKE: And I thought it was so great to see how many young people were at the podium this week and how many of them were, you know, not someone we’d heard of before, but just talking about their own lives. And I’ve seen very young delegates, as well. So it’s so great to see the voices of young people in this party.
AMY GOODMAN: Your plans?
SANDRA FLUKE: So, I’m going to be doing a lot of this through November, doing everything that I can to make sure that we have the president and the congress that we need for the next—for the next term. And after that, I’m looking for good bar results, I hope. So—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean, as in the law bar, just to be clear.
SANDRA FLUKE: That’s right, the bar, the bar exam. Yes, yes—no. Thank you, yes, the bar exam. So we’ll see exactly what comes next.
AMY GOODMAN: Just if Rush Limbaugh plans to excerpt any part of this interview.
SANDRA FLUKE: Yeah, exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, best of luck on the bar exam.
SANDRA FLUKE: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Fluke is a women’s health activist, recent graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, famously attacked by Rush Limbaugh and others after voicing support for insurance coverage of contraception. She spoke Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, the first speaker in the prime-time slot. After her, it was Elizabeth Warren, running for the Senate in Massachusetts. Then Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa introduced Bill Clinton.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, another woman who is breaking all sorts of ceilings and breaking through to a global audience. We will be joined by the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Stay with us.