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Why I demanded a voice for Sandra Fluke

Rush Limbaugh's recent, despicable three-day attack against law student Sandra Fluke cast a spotlight on a national campaign by Republicans to turn back the clock on 50 years of progress on women's health issues. But his attacks were not the first attempt to silence Ms. Fluke and the voices of millions of women like her.

Two weeks earlier, I had requested Ms. Fluke's testimony at a hearing before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on a rule announced by the Obama administration to require employer health insurance to cover contraceptives.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa had stacked the hearing only with witnesses who opposed the rule, and he lined up the first panel with only male religious officials. That's right — an all-male panel to talk about contraceptives.

Amazingly, the chairman rejected my request, claiming that Ms. Fluke was not "appropriate or qualified" to testify. I was stunned by his decision and asked him to reconsider, but he refused.

I chose Ms. Fluke to speak for the millions of women across the country who are affected by the new rule. I wanted someone at the table to give them a voice. I chose Ms. Fluke because women have a right to be heard on this issue.

As the son of a minister from a small church in Baltimore, I understand the position of the faith-based community on this issue. I know — both through my faith and my legal training — that we have an obligation as a nation to make accommodations, where appropriate, to avoid undue interference with the practice of religion in this country.

But there is another core interest we must consider as part of this debate, and that is the interest of the women affected by these policies.

Even if the chairman and other Republicans disagree with women who support insurance coverage for contraceptives, these women have a right to their position, and we in Congress have an obligation to listen. Frankly, my Republican colleagues just don't seem to get that.

As I travel through my district, the women I speak to about this issue express profound concern with the way they are being treated. Why are they being silenced? Why are they being excluded from a debate that affects them so directly? Why are they being attacked with misogynistic slurs for expressing their views?

Instead of apologizing to Ms. Fluke and changing course, Republican officials have continued their attacks and redoubled their efforts to push through their extreme agenda at the state and national levels.

Just days after our hearing, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt offered an amendment to allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives if it contradicts their "moral convictions." Imagine your boss being put in charge of making health care choices for you. Although the amendment was narrowly defeated, Senator Blunt warned, "I'm confident this issue is not over."

In states across the country, Republicans are moving forward with a coordinated campaign to make many forms of commonly used birth control illegal through so-called "personhood" legislation and ballot initiatives that would outlaw the Pill, emergency contraceptives and intrauterine devices.

This debate has become a defining moment for Republicans, and they are digging in their heels to find ways to legislate control over a woman's body.

Now that their agenda has been exposed, however, women are mobilizing across the country. Thousands who rallied behind Ms. Fluke are now organizing millions of women in support of protecting women's health. Their voices are essential to this debate.

I want them to know that there are also millions of men across the country who stand with them, and I, for one, will continue to do everything in my power to fight to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights are protected.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democratic congressman from Baltimore, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He can be reached through his website, http://www.house.gov/cummings.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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