Washington — Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke was given her chance to talk to Congress Thursday, even though lawmakers were on a break and just a few Democratic allies were there to cheer her on.
But what a difference a week makes.
Last Thursday the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee rejected Democrats' request that Fluke testify on the Obama administration's policy requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to health insurance that covers birth control.
This week she received almost rock-star treatment as the lone witness at an unofficial Democratic-sponsored hearing. While the rest of the Capitol was mostly empty, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, three other Democrats and dozens of mainly young women supporters crowded into a House office building room to applaud Fluke as she spoke of the importance of reproductive health care to women.
Prominently displayed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was a photo of five religious leaders, all men and all appearing at the invitation of the Republican majority, testifying last week with Fluke visible in the background, sitting in the visitors' section.
Democrats pounced on that image of a hearing discussing contraceptive rights being dominated by men while the one person Democrats had asked to appear on the witness stand, a woman, was turned away. Pelosi, D-Calif., said they had since heard from 300,000 people urging that women's voices be heard on the issue.
"We almost ought to thank the chairman for the lack of judgment he had," in denying a seat to Fluke, Pelosi said.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had said at last week's hearing that the panel's focus was on whether the administration policy was a violation of religious freedom. He said at the time that Fluke, invited by Democrats in her capacity as former head of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, was not qualified to speak on the religious rights question.
"I'm an American woman who uses contraceptives," Fluke said, when asked Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., about her qualifications to speak on the issue.
The Health and Human Services Department ruled earlier this year that, under the new health care law, religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities must include free birth control coverage in their employee health plans.
That raised a storm of protests from Catholic leaders and other groups that disapprove of contraception on religious grounds. Two weeks ago President Barack Obama modified that policy so that insurance companies, and not the organization affiliated with a church, would pay for birth control coverage.
The religious leaders at last week's hearing said that Obama's concession was too little. Republicans in the House and Senate are pushing legislation to let insurance plans opt out of any mandate on contraception coverage if they have moral objections.
Fluke, a third-year law student, said that Georgetown Law, 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.