DALLAS—Sandra Fluke warned her audience at Southern Methodist University that she might not live up to her bad reputation.
“If you’ve come to see how slutty I am in person,” she said, “you’re probably going to be disappointed with the content of my discussion.”
Ms. Fluke, a recent graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, came to SMU on Sept. 24 for a panel discussion titled “Economics and Equality: How Obstacles to Women’s Health Care Access Affect Us All.” The event was sponsored by SMU’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program.
Ms. Fluke, a lifelong United Methodist, has been in the national spotlight since talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.” This was after she testified before a congressional panel on the question of mandated health insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Dubbed a “feminist superstar” by the New York Times, Ms. Fluke is using her spotlight to advocate for women’s reproductive rights. She spoke on Sept. 5 at the Democratic National Convention, urging delegates to fight for women’s access to birth control.
The SMU panel featured Ms. Fluke and two of the school’s professors, Linda Eads and the Rev. Charles Curran (a Catholic priest whose positions on social issues have often had him at odds with church leaders), as well as Planned Parenthood North Texas president Ken Lambrecht.
Ms. Fluke urged attendees to advocate for making birth control widely accessible and affordable. That’s good public policy, she argued, because accessible birth control protects women’s health, gives women an equal chance to participate in society and ultimately saves the government money by preventing unwanted pregnancies.
“We need public policy to be less about compromise and more about having it be guided by science and by accurate public policy analysis,” Ms. Fluke told the packed auditorium of more than 500 people.
Earlier this year, Ms. Fluke testified at a House Democratic Steering Committee hearing in support of an Obama administration ruling that would require church-affiliated employers to cover contraceptives in their health insurance plans. That prompted Mr. Limbaugh to call her not only a “slut” but a “prostitute.” Several advertisers pulled ads from “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” according to news reports; he later apologized, saying his “choice of words was not the best.”
Ms. Fluke began her remarks at SMU by clearing up what she called “specific distortions” in the media’s coverage of her congressional testimony.
“My testimony was not about my sex life, or my own inability to afford contraception … or about government funding for contraception. And it was not about forcing churches to pay for contraception against their beliefs,” she said.
What she did testify to, she said, was the need of women on her campus for affordable birth control, and how some women require the birth control medications for non-contraceptive reasons, such as to prevent ovarian cysts.
Ms. Fluke made clear she does believe there’s an effort afoot to limit women’s access to contraceptives. She said an “unprecedented” number of bills in state legislatures and Congress would have some effect in that regard.
Ms. Fluke said that after Mr. Limbaugh’s comments made headlines, she briefly considered stepping back from the limelight “to save my friends and family a lot of heartache.” She chose instead to continue to speak out and to use her platform to advocate for reproductive rights.
“I didn’t want young women to see this as a cautionary tale,” she said. “I didn’t want them to see my situation and say, ‘Look what happened to her.’ I wanted to send a message that says, ‘You can survive this. You are strong enough. It’s not a reason to turn away from being involved in our civic process and in our government.’”
The SMU event became emotional at times, as several people in the audience challenged the panel and shared their own objections to abortion. Ms. Fluke thanked those who asked questions, saying she’d rather hear emotional discussion than see people remain apathetic.
She also urged young women in the audience to become more engaged in the political process—and to run for office, an option she said she hasn’t ruled out for herself.
“We need male legislators who care about these issues, but we also need more women in office,” Ms. Fluke. “As some people in Congress are known to say, ‘if women are not at the table, they’re on the menu.’”