Rep. Darrell Issa’s Thursday hearing went off the rails early. “What I want to know,” demanded Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, as she looked at the all-male panel of clerics before her, “is, where are the women?”
The hearing, titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience,” was about religious freedom, Issa said, but it took place against the backdrop of a national controversy regarding the White House’s mandate that all employers provide birth control as part of their insurance plans.
As it happens, there was one woman present prepared to testify on the issue of birth control. Sandra Fluke, a 30-year-old Georgetown University Law School student, had been contacted earlier in the week by committee minority leaders after Democrats saw a video of her speaking about the mandate at the National Press Club on February 9.
But after several days of preparing her remarks with help from other students, Fluke received a call on Wednesday evening to inform her that Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had decided that she would not be permitted to testify, saying that Democrats had submitted her name too late for consideration.
“I thought that mostly I would represent the women who were going to be affected by the policy, the women who had been facing hardships because of the lack of contraceptives in general,” Fluke told The Daily Beast. “We knew how much this policy could mean to students on our campus and employees and staff who work for hospitals and things like that.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, the ranking minority committee member, sent Issa a letter last Wednesday asking him to reconsider his position on allowing Fluke’s testimony.
“When my staff inquired about requesting minority witnesses for this hearing, we were informed that you would allow only one,” Cummings wrote. “I believed it was critical to have at least one woman at the witness table who could discuss the repercussions that denying coverage for contraceptives has on women across this country.”
Undaunted, Fluke arrived at the hearing two hours early and waited in line, ultimately finding a seat directly behind the men scheduled to testify on the first of the day’s panels. She says she hoped that Democrats on the committee would be able to convince Issa to allow her to testify. It was not to be.
She sat while Issa made his opening remarks, and listened to the panel’s first witness, Rev. William E. Lori, the Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. She said she grew increasingly frustrated as she listened to Lori express his views on religious freedom in the form of an extended parable about a fictional kosher deli.
“I was a little bit stunned as I was sitting there,” Fluke said.
“It was hard to hear how the chairman talked about student advocacy, and how dismissive he was of our efforts,” Fluke said. “What was really hard for me was to listen to a hypothetical story for seven and half minutes without being able to share the stories of real women that I had hoped to share.”
Fluke said she has been active in birth control issues on Georgetown’s campus since arriving there three years ago. She’s a former president of the university’s chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, and is an organizer with Catholic Students for Women’s Health, a coalition of students from Catholic colleges and universities.
“I’ve been working on these issues for a few years and students have been working on them for decades,” Fluke said. Many students at Georgetown arrive without understanding the university’s stance on birth control, Fluke said, but she researched it before matriculating. Working to increase awareness around the issue has informed her thinking, she said, opening her eyes to what can happen when reproductive health issues are not addressed openly.
Fluke says it is these stories that she wanted to share at the hearing, including one about a friend with polycystic ovarian syndrome whose insurance did not cover the birth control medication that would treat it. Her friend could not keep up with out-of-pocket payments, Fluke said, and ultimately had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary. The friend continues to suffer from complications of the surgery, Fluke said.
Fluke said she remained at the hearing into the testimony of the second panelist, but when Maloney walked out in protest along with two other committee members, Fluke joined them.
“I couldn’t go directly to the members of Congress and I couldn’t be heard in our nation’s legislature, and that says something,” Fluke said. “The message that it sends when we don’t cover contraception is that women’s health isn’t important and isn’t a priority. I sincerely hope that’s not where we are in 2012.”
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., was one of the other two committee members who joined Maloney in walking out of the hearing.
“She was not heard,” Norton said of Fluke. “She was our witness, and the rules were contorted to keep her from testifying.”
Norton, who said she hasn’t seen anything like Thursday’s hearing since she first began sitting on the oversight committee nearly 22 years ago, said that the reasons Issa gave for excluding Fluke avoided the real issue.
“It would appear to exploit the religious side of the issue, and it simply defined women out,” Norton said. “It’s as if women were the silent majority that sat at a table stacked with men. And the way in which the majority did that was to simply define our witness out of the hearing.”
“The majority doesn’t get to pick the minority’s witnesses,” Norton said.
As for where the debate goes from here, Fluke said, “I hope actually that we begin talking about women’s health as a whole.”