Several weeks ago Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, testified at a congressional hearing in support of mandated private health insurance coverage of contraception. Her testimony explained the serious consequences of religious institutions, like the Jesuit-affiliated Georgetown, choosing to not cover contraceptives under their health insurance plans. Not long after this hearing, Fluke was the target of misogynistic and defamatory remarks from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Among the dozens of insults issued over three days, he called Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” on his radio show.
The conservative backlash to the contraception mandate has been regressive and frightening. It is alarming that the benefits of oral contraception must be repeatedly defended against outdated associations with immorality and promiscuity. To deny coverage of contraceptives is to deny basic female sexual health care. It is not the role of any institution to make a judgment about why or how women should have access to contraception.
We commend Duke for providing comprehensive women’s health coverage, including contraceptives, in its health insurance plan for students and employees. It is especially important for universities to provide young people with adequate access to sexual health resources. According to a 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the 15 to 24 age group is at a greater risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases compared to older adults. Duke has done well to make condoms readily available through Student Health—yet another difference between Duke and many religiously affiliated universities such as Georgetown.
While Duke has sexual health resources available for its students, more can be done to increase accessibility. For instance, starting in 2010, students began paying up to $30 for sexually transmitted infection testing, which until then had been free of charge. Given the inflammatory anti-feminist rhetoric circulating in the political sphere, we encourage Duke to reaffirm its commitment to female sexual health and seek ways to bring down costs of STI testing.
Health care should be addressed as a secular issue, not a religious one. To that effect, religiously affiliated universities should include comprehensive women’s health care under their insurance plans. Just as universities strive to provide adequate meal plans, housing accommodations and safety resources, so too should adequate health coverage be prioritized. While some facets of university life may inevitably be rooted in ideology, such as curriculum, this simply cannot be the case for health.
Conservatives have tried to frame President Barack Obama’s mandate as an issue of religious liberty, not birth control. In reality, it is both. Religiously affiliated colleges like Georgetown are attempting to impose their religious views on thousands of students and staff that do not share them. A study by the Guttmacher Institute shows that nearly all sexually active women use contraception, including 98 percent of Catholic women. And now, commentators like Limbaugh are lobbying for laws that would allow private organizations to opt out of covering basic health needs due to their religious reasons.
Contraception is an especially important issue for college-aged women and men. We condemn the regressive and misogynistic comments directed at activist Fluke. Furthermore, we urge Duke students to defend the University’s decision to offer contraception under its student health plan, a responsibility that all other universities—religious or not—share.