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“Where Are the Women?”: Lawmakers Walk Out on Contraception Rule Hearing After Female Witness Barred

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In a dramatic scene on Capitol Hill, several Democrats walked out of a congressional hearing on the Obama administration’s rule that would require health insurance plans, including those provided by Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free contraceptives for health-related issues and birth control. The lawmakers took action after the committee chair blocked testimony from a female witness who supports the mandate. We’re joined by D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who walked out of the hearing, and the witness who was barred from testifying, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. Georgetown is a Catholic university whose health plan does not cover contraception. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In a dramatic scene yesterday on Capitol Hill, several Democrats walked out of a congressional hearing on the Obama administration’s contraception rule. They took action after the committee chair blocked testimony from a female witness who supports the mandate. The rule would require health insurance plans, including those provided by Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free birth control methods.

Before walking out, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York criticized the panel at the hearing, which was exclusively male.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: What I want to know is: where are the women? When I look at this panel, I don’t see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive healthcare services, including family planning. Where are the women?

JUAN GONZALEZ: In response to Representative Maloney, Committee Chair Republican Darrell Issa of Califonia explained why the female witness was disqualified.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: The minority chose the witness we had not found to be appropriate or qualified. Now, appropriate and qualified is a decision I have to make. I asked our—our staff, what is her background, what has she done. They did the usual that we do when we’re not provided the three days and the forms that go with it: they did a Google search. They looked and found that she was, in fact, and is, a college student who appears to have become energized over this issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton expressed outrage at the chair for his decision.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: One thing, Mr. Chairman: we’ve been denied the right to have a witness.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: The gentlelady—

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I want to have the right—

REP. DARRELL ISSA: The gentlelady—

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: —to make a parliamentary inquiry!

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the issue, we’re going to Washington, where we are joined by D.C. Congress Member Eleanor Holmes Norton, who also walked out of the congressional hearing in protest. And we’re joined by Sandra Fluke, the female witness who was not allowed to testify at the all-male hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday. The first panel was all-male. Sandra is a third-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center and past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Georgetown is a Catholic university whose health plan does not cover contraception.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And Sandra, why don’t we begin with you, as you weren’t heard yesterday on Capitol Hill. If you had been able to testify, tell us what you would have said.

SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I was there really to talk about the voices of the women whose lives have been affected by this policy, who have been affected financially, emotionally and medically. And what I wanted the members of Congress to hear and the public to hear is what a difference this policy could make to their lives. I wanted to talk about how birth control is not accessible widely, that clinics are being defunded and are closing, and it’s not easy, and it’s incredibly expensive. It’s up to $100 a month. That’s $3,000 over law school, and it’s a financial burden for 40 percent of our students at Georgetown.

And I especially wanted to tell the particular stories of some friends of mine, actually, close friends, who have medical needs that require birth control for reasons other than preventing pregnancy. For example, one of them—it’s just a tragedy. She actually—she lost her ovary. It had to be surgically removed because a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball grew on it, because she didn’t have access to contraception to prevent that. She has polycystic ovarian syndrome. And as a result of that, the doctors are very concerned that she’s going into early menopause at the age of 32. And, of course, this will cause complications for her ever trying to conceive a child and puts her at increased risk for heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer.

AMY GOODMAN: But what would—what would—

SANDRA FLUKE: And this is all because she didn’t have insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: What would contraception have to—how would contraception have helped her, prevented that?

SANDRA FLUKE: Well, for many of these types of medical conditions, like endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, many other conditions, doctors regularly prescribe contraception to prevent growth of things like cysts or fibroids, and that’s widely medically accepted and is the most appropriate and effective form of treatment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the decision of the majority, the Republican majority, not to—not to hear from the witnesses that the minority had put forth, how frequently does this happen? And what was the buildup before the hearing? Were you surprised completely by the decision at the last moment?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: We were very surprised. I’ve been in Congress more than 20 years. And the context of this, of course, is that Republicans had lost this controversy to a compromise that the administration worked out between religious institutions, on the one hand, and insurers and women, on the other hand. So the committee simply reframed the issue in order to exploit the religious side of the issue. Well, this was an issue that had two sides: it had a religious liberty side, and it had the side of the women who needed contraceptives.

And in really a quite unprecedented move, the committee vetoed our witness, the young woman you just heard from, stacked their side with extra witnesses. And we were supposed to sit there and act like good little members of Congress. I have never seen a minority witness excluded. The majority doesn’t have the right to, quote, “qualify” who your minority witness is. We only are entitled to one. Remember, they could have had their 10 anyway, and we have had only one. As it was, we had none. So women were the silent majority who weren’t heard at the table, and the table really was about the discussion of women’s reproductive health.

AMY GOODMAN: So you walked out of the hearing. Describe the scene yesterday, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, I want you to know, I—somebody had to do it. The Democrats didn’t walk out. Even Carolyn Maloney came back. That we needed to have somebody there to, of course, respond from our side, but I was so outraged by the heavy-handed, autocratic, undemocratic treatment of the majority, of the Republican majority, to the minority—that’s us—that I thought that a statement had to be made.

And I thought that a statement had to be made because this is an issue with two very important sides. The administration came forward with a compromise that satisfied most Americans. Why anybody would want to work up a religious controversy, bringing in five men from various religious denominations, with no women at the table, says everything about the kind of polarization that the Republicans are still intent upon stirring up on the Hill. Remember, the economy is beginning to take hold. So they seem to have reverted to their old saw: the social issues. There was no reason otherwise, since a compromise had been achieved, to even the air this issue in a full committee hearing the next week.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member, could you explain what the compromise, the Obama compromise, rule is?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: It is one of the best win-win compromises I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress. The compromise, at the bottom line, allows religious institutions—and remember, these are universities and hospitals that hold themselves out to the public and receive, if they’re a hospital, more than half of their funds from the public, from the federal government. Yet these religiously affiliated institutions do not have to touch or pay one dime for contraceptives. On the other hand, the insurers must in fact provide contraceptives through contraceptive insurance.

How is this going to happen? It turns out—and this is the untold story here—that it costs insurers more to withhold contraceptive insurance. And if you think about it, the reason is that childbirth costs a great deal more than contraception, and childbirth and its complications cause a great deal more. So the administration was not only able to work out a compromise that satisfied women, whose reproductive health should not be trampled by an accommodation to religion, and yet religion must be accommodated, and was accommodated, and there’s no extra cost to women. I don’t know how you could have had a better compromise than that or why anybody would wish, having, in our country, gotten to a compromise on a very fragile issue, and wanting to stir that pot again, except for blatantly political reasons.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Sandra Fluke, the position of the Republican majority that you weren’t qualified to testify on this issue—you’re at Georgetown, a Catholic university. You’ve been leading the fight around this issue at your school. Could you talk about your efforts on this issue?

SANDRA FLUKE: Absolutely. And I just—I have to say, I thank you for playing the quip—excuse me, the clip of Congressmen Issa explaining that I was not an appropriate witness. I can’t think whose voices would be more appropriate than the women who are affected by this policy. And I really want to echo what Congressman Murphy said, which is, if this was not a hearing about women’s health, then let’s have a hearing about women’s health, let’s talk about it.

So, in terms of my efforts that led to this point, I’ve been part of a group of students who have been working on this for several years. And in fact, there have been students working on it for decades at Georgetown and at universities all over the country. Many religious universities have struggled in this way. And we’ve just done everything we can. We’ve surveyed our students about the impact it has on them, had extensive meetings with the administration. We have considered whether or not there are state laws that could protect us. And at this point, you know, we’ve been met with a deaf ear, and that’s why we’re so grateful for these regulations and for this compromise, because we think that it really achieves our most important goal, which was to make this important basic healthcare accessible to women to prevent the medical tragedies that I talked about, like my friend.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member Eleanor Holmes Norton, in an interview yesterday on MSNBC, the top donor to Rick Santorum’s super PAC, Foster Friess, said contraception doesn’t have to be costly, well, he said, because women can use aspirin for birth control. Asked if he thought Santorum’s position on contraception would hurt his viability in a general election, this is what he said.

FOSTER FRIESS: I get such a chuckle when these things come out. Here we have millions of our fellow Americans unemployed. We have jihadist camps being set up in Central—in Latin America, which Rick has been warning about. And people seem to be so preoccupied with sex. I think it says something about our culture. We maybe need a massive therapy session so we can concentrate on what the real issues are. And this contraceptive thing—my gosh, it’s so—it’s such inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Excuse me, I’m just trying to catch my breath from that, Mr. Friess, frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Andrea Mitchell responding to Foster Friess. Congress Member Eleanor Holmes Norton, your response?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, it may seem funny, but frankly, I think it’s quite insulting to women. I never heard of what the man is talking about. And for women, this is not to be trivialized. It says also a lot about Santorum, who was quickly—who quickly backtracked and tried to dissociate himself with this man, calling him a jokester.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Congress Member Santorum for a minute, long an opponent of contraception. In an interview in 2006, then-Senator Santorum said he’s “not a believer in birth control.”

BARRY NOLAN: So, would birth control be covered by that notion of freedom without responsibility?

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: I—look, I vote and have supported, you know, birth control, because it is not the taking of a human life. But, you know, I’m not a believer in birth control, in artificial birth control. Again, I think it goes down the line of being able to do whatever you want to do without having the responsibility that comes with that. And I don’t think it—it breaks what I think—and this is from a personal point of view. From a governmental point of view, I support, you know, Title X, I guess it is, and have voted for contraception and—although I don’t think it works. I think it’s harmful to women. I think it’s harmful to our society to have a society that says that, you know, sex outside of marriage is something that should be encouraged or tolerated, particularly among the young. And I think it has—and we’ve seen very, very harmful long-term consequences to a society. So, birth control, to me, enables that, and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-Senator Santorum, now running for president. Sandra Fluke, your response?

SANDRA FLUKE: Well, I just want to clarify the misconception that the only women who are affected by this are young women who are not married. For the law students that I represent, the average age is 27, and many of them are married, and they have no access to contraception, as well.

But beyond that, I strongly believe that our government has to legislate for reality, not ideology. So, if we don’t provide contraception coverage and healthcare, that’s not going to stop anyone from having sex, whether they should or should not be. And we really have to take care of women’s healthcare and not worry about policing their moral choices.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I thank you very much, Sandra Fluke, third-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center, past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, not allowed to testify at the all-male panel on—in a contraception hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday. And Congress Member Eleanor Holmes Norton, thanks so much for being with us.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we play an excerpt of an interview, the last interview we did with Anthony Shadid. The New York Times correspondent is dead. He died in Syria. Stay with us.

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