Part 4—Sadly, reporting is hard: So it frequently happens.
Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke produced storms of outrage in the past week. As frequently happens, this distracted attention from the matters Fluke testified about.
(On February 23, Fluke testified before a group of congressional Democrats. For the text of her testimony, click this. To watch her on C-Span, click here.)
For our money, this distraction was unfortunate, because the original case raised fascinating questions about a major ongoing policy matter. As usual, the reporting has been very weak, to the extent that reporting has happened at all.
But then, what else is new?
We’d love to see this story fleshed out. These are a few of our questions:
Fluke hit the news on February 16, when congressional Democrats tried to have her testify before a full House committee. According to the Washington Post, Chairman Darrell Issa “said that, after a staff review, he had not found Fluke ‘appropriate and qualified’ to testify before his committee.”
That evening, Fluke appeared on the Ed Show, where she described the situation she has confronted at Georgetown:
SCHULTZ (2/16/12): Great to have you with us tonight, Sandra.They say bad cases make bad law. Is that true of congressional testimony? Fluke describes a profoundly troubling set of events. That said, we’re not sure why congressional Dems would have sought this particular testimony.
Now I understand that you already planned your testimony. You were going to cite examples of people who could have benefited from President Obama’s mandate for birth control coverage. Share with us what you would have told that committee today.
FLUKE: That is what I was there to speak to the committee about. That’s why I was so stunned when Chairman Issa made the decision to not allow me to speak on behalf of those women and to say that I was not an appropriate witness, that those women’s stories were not appropriate for this committee. I cannot think of who would be more appropriate for the committee to hear from than the women affected by this policies whose lives were affected.
One of the women I wanted to talk about today is a close friend of mine. She has polycystic ovarian syndrome. And what that means is that she needs to take contraception for medical reason, to prevent cysts from growing on her ovaries and not to prevent pregnancy.
Now that technically means it should be covered on Georgetown student health insurance, which does not cover contraception for prevention of pregnancy. But unfortunately when university administrators and employers and insurance companies get involved in deciding whose health needs are legitimate and whose aren’t, what happens is that women’s health needs take a back seat to that type of ideology. And that’s what happened in her case and we found that that happens in 65 percent of the female students’ cases.
So for her, she was unable—they repeatedly refused her contraception coverage claims and she had verification from her doctor. It didn’t matter. So she had to pay out of pocket about $100 a month for her, month after month after month. And eventually she just couldn’t afford it like many students just cannot afford that kind of a cost.
And she had to stop taking it. I have to tell you, it’s—so what happened is that after a few months of her not taking the prescription, a massive cyst grew on her ovary. And she woke up one night in the middle of the night in excruciating pain and told me it felt like she had been shot.
And I just can’t—I can’t imagine what that felt like for her. What ultimately happened is that she had that ovary surgically removed, she had to have it surgically removed. And as a result of that, she would have problems conceiving a child. But even more, it just hasn’t stopped for her.
Since the surgery she’s experienced symptoms of early menopause, and her doctors are very concerned that at the age of 32, she is entering early menopause, which means that there will be nothing any doctor can do to help her to conceive a child. And it will also put her at risk for increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
And that’s where she was this morning when I was attempting to tell her story to the public and to members of Congress, she was at the doctor’s office trying to cope with the symptoms she’s experiencing.
SCHULTZ: Sandra, you know, I know our audience appreciates the story you just told. That was tremendous testimony. And it’s very powerful.
Did a Georgetown student suffer terrible medical consequences when the university (or perhaps an insurance company) violated its own procedures? Fluke seems to describe serious misconduct on someone’s part. But alas! The Washington Post didn’t examine this claim when it did its basic news report about Fluke.
Jenna Johnson’s news report appeared on Sunday, March 4. By then, we were all discussing Rush Limbaugh, not the young woman whose medical disaster Fluke had described. The outrage was general—about Rush! Other folk melted away.
Fluke seemed to describe a serious bit of misconduct—but bad cases do make bad law. Let’s suppose Georgetown (or its insurance company, if it has one) did misbehave in this case. Why would that be the type of testimony congressional Democrats sought?
For ourselves, we aren’t sure—but once Limbaugh calls someone a slut, the excitement overwhelms everything else! Meanwhile, the hometown Post may even engage in reporting as silly as this:
JOHNSON (3/4/12): As a co-president of the Georgetown chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Fluke and other law students have met through the years with several top Georgetown officials to discuss the student health-care plan.Even that! Students may have to “venture off campus!” As far as half a mile!
"They made very clear to us that they weren't going to do this until the law made them do it," said Lizzy Watson, 23, a second-year law student who is also a member of the group.
Some student groups pass out free condoms on Georgetown's main campus, but purchasing contraceptives of any sort requires venturing off campus, often to a pharmacy about half a mile away.
Other factual disputes have flared, including a dispute about how much contraception actually costs. But go ahead! Try to find reporting about such topics in the Times or the Post. (For Planned Parenthood’s answer, click this.)
Elsewhere, it’s all about the outrage! It’s all about Limbaugh’s remarks.
More questions: How exactly does this case relate to the decision which set off the current dispute? Under terms of Obama’s “accommodation,” will Georgetown have to provide contraception as part of its insurance for students? More broadly, does anyone know, to this very day, how Obama’s accommodation is actually supposed to work? Does anyone know how it would work for Catholic institutions which are self-insured?
We don’t know how to answer those questions. Within our journalistic culture, basic reporting of such matters tends to be inept from the start. But once Rush launches a culture war, everything else is ignored.
We’ve wondered about another aspect of Fluke’s interactions with Georgetown. When she spoke with Schultz, she described a long, frustrating effort to get contraception coverage:
SCHULTZ: I want to know what’s it like—you’re a third-year law student at Georgetown. Are people on campus—are they talking about this story, or has this really hit the attention of women that you interact with professionally in the school setting?According to Fluke, students have been struggling to get this coverage for decades. But according to the student Johnson quoted, Georgetown said it wasn’t going to comply “until the law made them do it.”
FLUKE: Oh, my goodness! Unless you studied at one of these schools, I can’t even explain to you what it is like on campus. We have been following these regulations ever since the Affordable Care Act was passed. And it’s a fight we’ve been having for years, literally decades, students have been struggling for this.
We were struck by the sheer futility of this portrait. Have students really been fighting for decades, trying to get a Catholic university to abandon its view of Catholic doctrine?
There’s nothing wrong with such a fight, of course. Students have every right to wage it.
But we’ll have to admit we wondered a bit about these students. Georgetown is a high-ranking law school. Presumably, its students are very bright—and they plan to be lawyers. (Last night on Fox, Megan Kelly said the starting salary for a Georgetown law grad is $160,000 per year.) In all those decades, did anyone ever try to create a work-around—a solution in which students would get contraception while Georgetown got to maintain its doctrine? How expensive could it be to provide this coverage for the women at Georgetown Law? Did anyone try to create a foundation which would provide this coverage from the outside, with Georgetown maintaining its view of Catholic doctrine?
We’d love to see reporting on that. Instead, the Post reports that law students have to “venture” as far as half a mile in order to buy contraception! This type of reporting tends to obtain once a culture war breaks out. Reporters start plucking the violin strings, helping us bond with the victims.
According to Fluke’s testimony, at least one young woman has been badly injured because of someone’s misconduct. Is that true? And who was at fault? We’ve seen no one who showed any interest in examining this serious claim. But then too, we’ve seen little attempt by major newspapers to explain this issue at all. How would Obama’s “accommodation” work? How would it work if a Catholic institution is self-insured?
Your big newspapers don’t seem to care. And such questions don’t make it to cable, where outrage and fury float boats.
Down through the decades, could enterprising Georgetown law students have found a solution to the problem? Has Obama come up with a workable plan? Are there any win-wins here? Or is this about “breaking the union?”
On this, a quick personal note:
We grew up Catholic ourselves. We emerged with a rather negative view of the Catholic Church. For that reason, we would not have been inclined to enroll at a Catholic university. But if we had enrolled at such a place, we don’t think we would have reacted with shock if we found our Catholic university pursuing Catholic doctrine, however absurd it may seem.
Fluke speaks to such issues in her testimony. Limbaugh made Fluke a victim with his typically stupid conduct. But we’ll suggest a political test for progressives:
Imagine Rush hadn’t interceded. Can you imagine how testimony like this would strike many voters? For ourselves, we’ll guess that many voters would think this might be a bit semi-foolish. We can’t really say they'd be wrong:
FLUKE (2/23/12): In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking, What did we expect when we enrolled in a Catholic school? We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally, to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success.Fluke resents the fact that someone disagrees with her view! After all, it’s the 21st century! And she refuses to go somewhere else. Why can't Georgetown just do what she wants?
We expected that our schools would live up to the Jesuit creed of “cura personalis”–to care for the whole person–by meeting all of our medical needs. We expected that when we told our universities of the problem this policy created for us as students, they would help us.
We expected that when 94 percent of students oppose the policy the university would respect our choices regarding insurance students pay for–completely unsubsidized by the university. We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere.
And even if that meant going to a less prestigious university, we refuse to pick between a quality education and our health. And we resent that in the 21st century, anyone think it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women.
These are subjective judgments, of course. But on balance, that strikes us as semi-foolish. For ourselves, we’re not real high on the Catholic Church. But to our ear, Fluke’s full testimony is full of infantilizing imagery concerning the (presumably) very capable students who chose to attend Georgetown Law. To our ear, the testimony offers a semi-childish view of the way a Catholic institution should respond to those who attend it.
This doesn’t mean that Fluke’s a bad person. It doesn’t even mean that she’s wrong! It does means that her friend might have been spared if someone had solved this problem during those futile decades. If someone found a good-faith solution to a problem everyone has known about for many years.
Is there some way to build “win-win solutions”—to create outcomes where Catholic institutions get to follow their doctrine while their employees and students get contraception? Was there a way to do that at Georgetown in the past? Has Obama’s “accommodation” now accomplished this goal on a larger scale?
Especially after Rush stirs outrage, big newspapers don’t cover such questions.
People! Reporting is hard!
Tomorrow: Scott Lemieux’s objection