The third-year Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, received a supportive phone call from Obama, and was backed by members of Congress, women’s groups, and the administration and faculty at her Roman Catholic university.
Calls for Limbaugh’s sponsors to pull their ads from his radio talk show rocketed through cyberspace, and at least two companies, bedding retailers Sleep Train and Sleep Number, said on their Twitter accounts that they were complying with the demands.
Obama considers Limbaugh’s remarks “reprehensible,” according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. He said the president called Fluke to “express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate personal attacks” and to thank her for speaking out on an issue of public policy.
“The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough,” Carney said. “It is worse when it’s directed at a private citizen who was simply expressing her views.”
Obama reached Fluke by phone as she was waiting to go on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
“What was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud,” a choked-up Fluke told Mitchell. “And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me. So I just appreciated that very much.”
Fluke was given a chance to talk to Congress on Feb. 23, even though lawmakers were on a break and just a few Democratic allies were on hand to cheer her on. The previous week, a Republican-controlled House committee had rejected Democrats’ request that she testify on the Obama administration’s policy requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to health insurance that covers birth control.
Fluke said that Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, does not provide contraception coverage in its student health plan and that contraception can cost a woman more than $3,000 during law school. She spoke of a friend who had an ovary removed because the insurance company wouldn’t cover the prescription birth control she needed to stop the growth of cysts.
On Wednesday, Limbaugh unleashed a lengthy and often savage verbal assault on Fluke.
“What does it say about the college coed ... who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?” Limbaugh said. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
He went on to suggest that Fluke distribute sex tapes of herself.
“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it,” he said. “We want you post the videos online so we can all watch.”
The backlash began quickly and showed no signs of abating as scores of Democratic members of Congress denounced Limbaugh and urged their GOP colleagues to do likewise.
The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, responded through a spokesman.
“The Speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation,” said Boehner aide Michael Steel.
Boehner and other congressional Republicans have been accused by many Democratic officeholders and liberal advocacy groups of waging a “war on women” because of the GOP’s stances on family-planning funds, access to contraception, abortion rights and other issues. The topic has been cited often in recent fundraising pitches by many of the advocacy groups.
Amid this controversy, polls show that Obama’s support among women has been increasing.
At Georgetown, more than 130 faculty members signed a letter praising Fluke for her “grace and strength” and condemning Limbaugh’s remarks. The university president, John J. DeGioia, did likewise.
He said Limbaugh and others responded to Fluke “with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”
On Thursday, aware of the firestorm he had ignited, Limbaugh was unapologetic.
“I think this is hilarious. Absolutely hilarious” he said on his show. “The left has been thrown into an outright conniption fit!”
On Friday, still defiant, Limbaugh scoffed at the concept of a conservative “war on women.”
“Amazingly, when there is the slightest bit of opposition to this new welfare entitlement being created, then all of a sudden we hate women! We want ‘em barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen,” he said. “And now, at the end of this week, I am the person that the women of America are to fear the most.”
Longtime Republican strategist Terry Holt suggested voters might see Obama’s response to an over-the-top radio host as “pure pandering” to woo women’s votes.
“This conversation seems to serve Rush Limbaugh and president Obama equally well,” Holt said.
Fluke, in Washington, issued a statement expressing gratitude for the support she’s received and resolve to continue speaking out.
“No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices,” she said.
“The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women’s health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced.”