The farce that is the controversy over the birth control insurance mandate just got even more farcical with a male-only Congressional hearing that prompted a group of female legislators to walk out.
Here’s what went down: This morning the Congressional Oversight Committee, chaired by Representative Darell Issa of California, held a hearing about whether mandating employers to accept insurance plans which cover birth control was intruding on religious freedom.
Never mind the fact that this plan had already been altered to remove religious institutions’ involvement in the contraception provisions. Today’s hearing went on, and even worse, among all witnesses called to testify (including Rabbi Meir Soloveichik) not a single one was female. Worse, maddeningly so, Issa also refused to hear from women who had used, provided or needed contraception, not even for medical, non-contraceptive reasons.
As a result, during the proceedings several Democratic women including Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Carolyn Maloney of New York, who had sought to call female witnesses to the stand, walked out of the hearing (some eventually came back). Holmes said it was reminiscent of “autocratic regimes,” as Sarah Posner reports at Religion Dispatches:
One of the witnesses Issa refused to allow the Democrats to call was Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University… Had she been permitted to testify, said Fluke, she would have discussed the stories of Georgetown employees who are denied birth control coverage, including a woman who has lost an ovary because she was even denied coverage for pill not even needed for contraceptive, but for medical purposes. As a result of not having the proper medical care, the woman, now 32 years old, lost an ovary and is experiencing an early menopause, threatening her ability to have children. Issa denied Fluke the opportunity to testify because she was “not qualified.”
Issa’s shenanigans, plus the quickly and widely circulated photo of the five male witnesses, rabbi included, generated a huge outcry on social media under the hashtag #issacircus. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and novelist Jennifer Weiner both tweeted a second photo of the hearing and asked “where are the women?”
According to the Huffington Post, Pelosi got so ticked off she threatened to teach her colleagues about biology:
“I think it’s really curiouser and curiouser that as we get further into this debate, the Republican leadership of this Congress thinks it’s appropriate to have a hearing on the subject of women’s health and can purposely exclude women from the panel,” Pelosi said during a press conference. “What else do you need to know about the subject?” “If you need to know more, tune in, I may, I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues.”
The fact is the consequences of this lack of insurance really do come down women’s health. This morning, Physicians for Reproductive Health and Choice released its own testimony in advance of the hearing. It included four stories of women whose health was or could have been adversely affected by their Catholic employers, including this one:
Pittsburgh physician Dr. Jen Russo took care of Rita, a young Catholic mother of five, while in residency. Rita was suffering from a serious heart defect. She was six weeks pregnant and had a defective cardiac valve that had to be replaced with a synthetic one. Pregnancy put her at high risk for a blood clot forming on the new valve and traveling to her brain, where it could kill her. Rita had not been using contraception because she had no insurance to make it affordable — not because she didn’t want to use it. While in the hospital, despite taking blood thinners to treat her clots, Rita had a stroke. The woman Dr. Russo had spent hours with talking about caring for her five living children, her marriage, and how to handle her unplanned pregnancy, could now no longer speak or walk.
Issa and his friends would probably have told Rita to find her own contraception, but as her and others’ stories show, this is easier said than done. Birth control is costly. Women’s lives are at stake. That’s why I was enraged and then deeply saddened by the hearing, which reminded me too much of a Handmaid’s Tale-style misogynist dystopia to make me laugh at its absurdity. In the Handmaid’s Tale, when Christian fundamentalists take over America, the notion of “freedom” gets changed for women: “freedom to” make decisions about one’s life and body gets replaced “freedom from” the difficult choices and potential dangers that come from sexual agency and bodily autonomy. As Nona Willis-Aronowitz points out at GOOD, that type of linguistic shift has been the hallmark of this debate: a patently obvious effort to redefine the notion of rights and freedom — from women’s freedom to control their destiny to the rights of religious authority figures to impose their own morality on the country.