March 5, 2012 — President Obama on Friday called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to express his support after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" and a "prostitute" for speaking out in favor of new federal contraceptive coverage rules, the New York Times' "The Caucus" reports (Weisman, "The Caucus," New York Times, 3/2).
Among his many attacks on Fluke, Limbaugh said, "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you [to] post the videos online so we can all watch" (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/2). Limbaugh repeatedly targeted Fluke on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday editions of his show, saying that she was "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk" and claiming that she said in her recent testimony before Congress that she was "having sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth-control pills that she needs" (Stelter, "The Caucus," New York Times, 3/3).
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama called Fluke to "offer his support, express his disappointment, that she was the subject of an inappropriate personal attack." The Washington Post notes that Obama framed the contraceptive coverage debate "squarely as a fight for women's rights," continuing Democrats' push to appeal to women who see the matter as "one about control of their health and bodies." Republicans have sought to frame the issue as matter of religious liberty (Nakamura/Kane, Washington Post, 3/2).
Limbaugh Apologizes Amid Pressure from Advertisers
Limbaugh on Saturday said he "did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke" and that he "chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation" (Tau, Politico, 3/3). Limbaugh then repeated his opposition to the contraceptive coverage policy ("The Caucus," New York Times, 3/3). As of Sunday, seven companies had pulled ads from Limbaugh's show in response to his comments (Arbel, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/4).
Limbaugh's critics dismissed his apology as being influenced by advertiser pressure. "I know he apologized, but forgive me, I doubt his sincerity, given that he lost at least six advertisers," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in an interview on "Meet the Press" (Stelter, New York Times, 3/4).
Fluke, Georgetown President Respond
Fluke on Friday said Limbaugh's comments were "an attempt to silence [her], to silence all of us from speaking about the health care we need" (Johnson, Washington Post, 3/2). Fluke said that she expected criticism for speaking out but was not anticipating personal attacks. "[T]his reaction is so out of the bounds of acceptable discourse," Fluke said, adding, "These types of words shouldn't be applied to anyone" (Johnson, Washington Post, 3/3).
Georgetown University President John DeGioia defended Fluke in a campus-wide email sent Friday morning. Fluke "provided a model of civil discourse," DeGioia wrote, "And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position -- including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels -- responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic and a misrepresentation of the position of our student." DeGioia did not mention the Catholic university's health plan, which does not cover contraceptives (Johnson, Washington Post, 3/2).
GOP Presidential Candidates, Leaders Respond
The Republican presidential candidates attempted to distance themselves from Limbaugh's comments about Fluke, the Los Angeles Times reports (Memoli, Los Angeles Times, 3/4). Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) on CBS's "Face the Nation" said he did not "think [Limbaugh is] very apologetic. I think he's doing it because people were taking their advertisements off his program" (Phillip, Politico, 3/4).
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) on "Meet the Press" said it was "appropriate for [Limbaugh] to apologize," but criticized the media for "suddenly decid[ing] that Rush Limbaugh is the great national crisis of this week" (Los Angeles Times, 3/4). Rick Santorum in an interview Friday on CNN said Limbaugh was "being absurd. But that's, you know -- an entertainer can be absurd."
Many Democrats criticized former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his "notably mild response" to Limbaugh's comments, the Los Angeles Times reports. Romney on Friday said, "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," Romney said (Reston, Los Angeles Times, 3/2). Wasserman Schultz said of Romney, "[T]he leading candidate on the Republican side for president couldn't even bring himself to call Rush Limbaugh's comments outrageous and call him out and ask him to apologize (Viser, "Political Intelligence," Boston Globe, 3/4).
Fortenberry Pushes for House Action
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on Friday said he expects House leaders will move on a bill (HR 1179) that would allow health plans with moral or religious objections to deny coverage of any health service required to be covered under the federal health reform law (PL 111-148), CQ Today reports. Kerri Price, Fortenberry's communications director, said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the GOP conference in late February that leaders would act on the measure.
Leadership aides said no decision has been made about the legislation. If the House were to approve Fortenberry's bill, it likely would die in the Senate, which on Thursday rejected a similar measure by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) (Ethridge/Attias, CQ Today, 3/2).
Editorial, Opinion Pieces Discuss Limbaugh, GOP Candidates, Related Issues
~ Nancy Cohen, Los Angeles Times: "Conflicts over gay marriage, transvaginal ultrasounds, Planned Parenthood funding and insurance coverage for birth control are not isolated events," Cohen, an author, writes in an opinion piece. "Rather, they are the latest expression of a 40-year-old shadow movement that has played an important role in fueling America's political dysfunction," she adds. Cohen continues, "The counterrevolutionaries discovered early on that the American political system offers many ways around public opinion -- delay and obstruction can hold back or nibble away at policies the majority desires" (Cohen, Los Angeles Times, 3/4).
~ Charles Blow, New York Times: "Santorum may now cloak his current views in Catholic fundamentalism and Constitutional literalism, but, at their root, they are his reaction to, and revulsion for, the social-sexual liberation that began in the 1960s," columnist Blow writes as he recounts comments the candidate made in a 2008 question-and-answer session. "The kind of conservatism that Santorum represents has been described as a war on women," Blow writes, but Blow would call it "a war on sex beyond the confines of traditional marriage and strict heterosexuality in which women, particularly poor ones, and gays, particularly open ones, are likely to suffer the greatest casualties" (Blow, New York Times, 3/2).
~ Maureen Dowd, New York Times: Limbaugh is "brutalizing a poised, wholesome-looking 30-year-old Georgetown law student ... simply for testifying to lawmakers about wanting the school to amend its health insurance to cover contraception," columnist Dowd writes. She notes that Limbaugh and Gingrich have had multiple marriages, "[b]ut women pressing for health care rights are denigrated as sluts" (Dowd, New York Times, 3/3).
~ Dana Milbank, Washington Post: "When will Republicans stop their vagina monologue?" Milbank asks in response to the party's "burst of interest in women's private parts." He says there is "[e]vidence that the Republicans realize they're in a pickle," including that Romney bungled his position on the Blunt amendment and that Republican leaders "backed away from their demands for a vote on the provision" (Milbank, Washington Post, 3/2).
~ Washington Post: "Limbaugh has abused his unique position within the conservative media to smear and vilify a citizen engaged in the exercise of her First Amendment rights, and in the process he debased a political discourse that needs no further debasing," a Post editorial states. "While Republican leaders owe no apology for Mr. Limbaugh's comments, they do have a responsibility to repudiate them -- and him," the editorial concludes (Washington Post, 3/2).
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership