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Sandra Fluke Pens Scathing Open Letter to Trump About Birth Control: You’re ‘Radicalizing Religious Liberty’

In 2012, then-Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke rose to fame as she testified before Congress on college women’s needs to have affordable access to birth control. The contraceptive mandate, on top of granting some 67 percent of insured women free access to birth control, has saved American women more than $1 billion in birth control fees since it was enacted.

Now, in the face of challenges from the Trump administration (which run parallel to Congressional efforts to overhaul the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood) in the name of purportedly protecting religious liberty, Fluke returns to the public eye with a scathing open letter to Trump about birth control coverage, in which Fluke tells Trump he and his administration are “radicalizing religious liberty.”

“There are legitimate religious liberty claims under our Constitution. People practicing a variety of religions in America have real reasons to be concerned about their constitutional rights and whether this administration will protect them (see: the Muslim travel ban),” Fluke writes in the letter. “Allowing Citibank or Nike or Sprint to deny birth control coverage to employees is not a valid religious liberty concern. Treating that claim as legitimate and worthy of protection cheapens our nation’s commitment to true religious liberty.”

Fluke opens her letter by introducing birth control as a crucial medical need for young women, not only in order to have control over their bodies and destinies, but for their health and safety, as she recounts how one of her peers was hospitalized as a result of lack of access to birth control.

“Donald Trump’s administration is considering an extreme rollback of birth control coverage on the grounds of religious liberty,” Fluke writes. “Under this new rule, any corporation or nonprofit could deny coverage on the basis of religious belief, with few restrictions.”

The policy Fluke is referring to would allow any employer, including colleges and health insurance companies, to seek exemption from providing insurance plans that offer birth control to female employees, on moral or religious grounds.

The policy is a departure from a compromise previously struck by the Obama administration, in which houses of worship were not required to provide insurance coverage for birth control if it violated their religious beliefs, but as Fluke recalls, “their insurance carrier would provide the coverage without the involvement of the religiously connected institution and without using their funds.”

But now, Fluke is worried about the Trump administration expanding this exemption to “any for-profit or publicly traded corporation.”

“This raises a new round of questions and concerns,” she writes. “Exactly what religion would a publicly traded corporation like Bank of America or Coca-Cola or General Electric have? The religion of the majority of shareholders? Its CEO? Its board? What if an employee takes a job at an agnostic telecommunications firm, but then new leadership is hired and the company announces it has a new religion affecting health care coverage for all employees?”

The American Civil Liberties Union already threatened to sue the Trump administration earlier this month should these policies take effect. The ACLU argues that the policy is unconstitutional, as allowing employers to use religion as a means to discriminate against women prioritizes Christian values over women’s right to bodily autonomy.

“We think that’s unconstitutional, both in terms of separation of church and state and discrimination against women,” Brigitte Amiri, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told The Hill last month.

Fluke’s letter ultimately highlights how freedom of religion was meant to refer to the right to individual expression, rather than forcing others to live according to the personal beliefs of some.

But one key point Fluke seeks to drive home is the shockingly powerful economic benefits of widening access to birth control, which would slash natal, maternal and child health care costs for low-income women with unintended pregnancies, lower the abortion rate, and likely address the rising national rate of pregnancy-related deaths.

“The consequences of denying comprehensive health care coverage to women are severe,” Fluke writes, noting the “unprecedented gains in affordable or no-cost contraceptive access for millions of women.”

“It is estimated that in 2013 alone, American women saved more than $1.4 billion. Scant other medicine is so widely needed or used—more than 90 percent of American women will use contraception in their lives,” she continues. “When contraception use increases, unintended pregnancy rates decrease (something one would think the Pence wing of the Republican Party would applaud).”

Since testifying before Congress, Fluke has gotten married and seems to have moved on from the shaming and unsettling attacks she received from the right wing (so much so that the harassment is now immortalized in its own Wikipedia entry). But Fluke concludes her letter with an impassioned recollection of that particular period of her life.

“My congressional testimony from five years ago is burned into my memory. While many people testify before Congress every week and go unnoticed, my testimony caught the attention of some far-right-wing pundits,” Fluke wrote. “I was the focus of a lot of ugly, sexualized attacks by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators. The experience was difficult, and I felt bad for the stress it caused my family, but I don’t regret my testimony for a minute.”


(via Vox, image: Wikimedia Commons/Ms. Magazine)

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