April 2012 Church & State | Featured

A recent hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives on the right of Americans to access birth control despite religious objections was notable for what it lacked: defenders of birth control.

The Feb. 16 hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, contained two panels. The first consisted of five religious leaders – all male – who insisted that asking religiously affiliated institutions to allow insurance companies to provide contraceptives to those employees who want them would violate churches’ religious liberty rights. A second panel contained two women, but they also took an anti-access stand.

Congressional hearings usually contain a variety of views. How did this one-sided affair come about? There was more than a little behind-the-scenes drama.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the House, contacted Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and asked him to testify. At the same time, they approached a Georgetown Law School student named Sandra Fluke, who had made a powerful YouTube video discussing how she and her friends had been affected by the lack of birth control coverage in the Catholic school’s student health care plan.

The Republicans who control the committee told the Democrats they could have only one witness. Lynn agreed that Fluke would be a strong voice and agreed to step aside. But the committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), refused to allow it.

Issa asserted that Fluke was not qualified and told the Democrats to invite Lynn or have no witnesses. Democrats chose the latter option, but asked Lynn to submit written testimony.

“Women – not their employers – should be allowed to make decisions about their health care and their religious beliefs,” Lynn wrote. “A woman may not share the religious beliefs of her employer or practice religion in exactly the same way her employer does. It is the woman’s right to exercise her religion freely and make her own decisions about reproductive health, even if she is employed by an organization that holds a different position on these matters.”

Lynn warned that overly broad exemptions based on religious belief could result in employees being denied vital services.

Fluke, meanwhile, became the focus of media attention in the wake of the hearing. The following week, Democrats invited her to a hearing to deliver the testimony in person.

Appearing before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Fluke explained how she and several of her friends have suffered financially, emotionally and medically because of Georgetown’s refusal to provide any birth control coverage.

She also told a gut-wrenching story about a friend who needed birth control for medical reasons. The woman suffered from ovarian cysts that could have been alleviated by birth control pills, but the university refused to provide them. She was unable to pay for the medication on her own; one cyst grew to the size of a tennis ball, and one of her ovaries had to be removed.

Concluded Fluke, “Many of the women whose stories I have shared today are Catholic women, so ours is not a war against the church. It is a struggle for access to the health care we need.”

Fluke’s testimony rankled religious and political conservatives, even sparking a vicious tirade against her by right-wing radio commenter Rush Limbaugh.

But, in an interview with Church & State, Fluke said she has been pleased by most of the reaction to the hearing. More women and men, she said, are rejecting the bishops’ demands.

“In my point of view, real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make their own decisions about birth control,” Fluke said. “It doesn’t give one group the right to impose its beliefs on others or use religion as an excuse to discriminate or deny access to critical health care services.”

With a national debate over this issue under way, that may not be the last word. But from a religious liberty perspective, it’s certainly on target.