The Breakfast Table

Unwanted Federal Intrusion

Dear Michael,

Hey! And I thought you would greet me this morning by observing that, as luck would have it, the lead article in the Post is a big story about … Metro trains! It seems that the guy I was eavesdropping on the other night turned out to be a North Korean defector who … no, no, a Republican congressman who … no, no, an urban hipster who … just kidding. It turns out that the entire Metro system is being destroyed by water seepage. I thought you would be glad to learn this. I thought there might be some celebratory, taunting e-mails. First the loss of the Newseum, now the slow, ugly destruction of suburban commuter rail. But no. You are silent. Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, I have been talking to some of my newsroom pod-mates about that question you raised earlier, of why the paper seems to cover problems with Metro trains more than it covers problems with buses. My colleagues (who have otherwise spent the week reading aloud to me hate mail from “The Fray,” a diversion they have enormously enjoyed) pointed out that the reason for this is that Metro trains are part of a huge interlocking system in a way that buses aren’t. That is to say, when one train derails, other trains derail, and there are enormous backups, and thousands of people are inconvenienced, not to mention, often, scarily trapped in dark underground tunnels. This is not the case so much with broken-down buses. Apparently, there is some sort of hallowed news principle here: the same hallowed principle that makes it important (from a news angle) to point out, when a traffic fatality has occurred, not just the fact of the fatality but also the fact that as a result, there are 9-MILE BACKUPS on the Beltway. I am not defending this principle. I am simply repeating it.

Anyway, in defense of both of us, one of the reasons conversation this week has turned so often to local issues is not just that you and I happen to live and work within spitting distance of each other (and stop spitting at me, would you!) but because of the national midsummer quiet. This is a week when most news really is local, and the other big D.C. story you point out–Congress forcing the district council to change a controversial local law–just illustrates how local everything is, not only for Beltway dwellers but for interloping lawmakers who beat up on the district as a way of placating their own far-flung constituencies. If I may cast my lot for a moment with district residents, what the story just underlines–once again–is the sorry consequence of D.C.’s lack of voting representation on the Hill.

As you pointed out, what happened this week is that D.C.’s locally elected council voted to require all local employers and insurers to include contraceptive coverage in their health plans–a long-overdue, hugely useful, hugely important step (and one that was prompted, in D.C. and in other places, by the immediate coverage given to Viagra). The D.C. council also firmly declined to include a “conscience clause” that would have exempted religious organizations such as Georgetown, as you mentioned. I completely agree with you, that when the church becomes a bureaucracy, and an employer, and the owner of big profitable things like hospitals and health plans, then the church ceases to be, strictly speaking, a church. (As it happens, my own health plan pushed me in the direction of an ob-gyn group at Georgetown; both times I gave birth, I did so under the watchful protection of the crucifix over the delivery table, added protection that, though I am not Catholic, was fine with me.) I think the law is a great thing and I think churches, in their role as employers and health-care providers, should have to abide by it. And that’s what the elected D.C. council decided, too. But a couple of Republican congressmen from Oklahoma and (how painful it is to admit this) Virginia felt otherwise. By striking down the D.C. law (which they have the right to do; Congress oversees EVERY SINGLE LAW the district passes), these Republicans can appeal to their own conservative constituencies without having to answer to voters in their own states.

Those of us who live in the area have seen this happen many times, and another reason it angers me is that so often these overturned laws affect women chiefly. What are today’s controversial issues? Abortion, for one, and access to contraception. So what does Congress do? It denies Medicaid coverage to D.C. residents seeking abortions. It forces the D.C. Council to exempt Georgetown from paying for contraception for women it hires, women who may or may not be Catholic themselves. And now Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., can go home and talk up this big idealistic thing he has done, without having to face any irate Oklahomans. Talk about unwanted federal intrusion! So what am I for resenting this? Liberal or conservative?

And speaking of contraception, if I may, for a moment longer; the foreign story that interests me today is the finding, from Africa, that nonoxynol-9 doesn’t seem to provide the cheap protection from HIV that researchers had hoped. This is too bad. Nonoxynol-9 is a contraceptive, but more than that, it does help prevent the spread of some sexually transmitted diseases, and has thus been an important (if not sure-fire) way that women using contraceptive creams could protect themselves against disease, even if their male partner doesn’t wear a condom. For women in Africa–who, from what I’ve read, are sometimes culturally obliged to have sex with men, be they husbands or clients, who don’t want to wear condoms–it would have been so important to have a cheap way to protect themselves. That nonoxynol-9 doesn’t work is disappointing.

But am I the only person who is a little bit troubled by the way this was discovered? According to our story, testing was done on prostitutes in Asia and Africa, some of whom were given a gel with nonoxynol-9, and some of whom were given a gel without it. For women who have sex all day long, it turns out that nonoxynol-9 may actually increase their chances of contracting HIV (something to do with creating small blistery ulcers); so as a result of these tests, a few prostitutes were infected who might not otherwise have been. Are we OK with this?