Women Should Not Be Subject to Conscription

The United States Senate passed a bill last week to force all young American women to join the Selective Service registry.

By a vote of 85 to 13 the Senate voted in favor of a $602 billion defense bill that includes an amendment to expand the National Defense Authorization Act’s military Selective Service requirements to include female citizens aged 18-26, making them subject to any future military draft. If signed into law, it could be implemented as early as 2018.

Currently, the Selective Service registration requirement applies to all male U.S. citizens and male immigrants 18 through 25. It is illegal to not register, and, if women are required to register as well, not doing so could prevent them from federal employment and from accessing federal financial aid like Pell grants.

Among the bill’s opponents was Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who lamented the vote as a “radical departure” from American history. The idea of conscription for women, he said, “is being used as a vehicle to further agendas that have nothing to do with actually defending America. Despite the many laudable objectives in this bill, I could not in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat.”

Nevertheless, supporters of women serving in combat roles called the bill a major step forward for women, and the proposal had surprisingly broad support among Republican leaders and women in both parties.

There has not been military conscription in the U.S. since 1973, during the Vietnam War; the U.S. military is currently an all-volunteer force. The Selective Service — whose stated mission is to “furnish manpower to the Defense Department during a national emergency” — was curtailed for many years, but was reinstated in 1980 following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

It is improbable that an actual draft will ever be reinstated. What’s more, in the event it was, forcing women into combat roles rather than support services might seem unlikely.

But it would be fully consonant with the Pentagon’s policy, announced last year, to open all military roles to women. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that women did not have to register for the draft, noting that they should not face the same requirements as men because they did not participate on the front lines of combat, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in December that the Pentagon would in fact open all combat jobs to women.

And so, if, in a volunteer army, women are indistinguishable from men, in a conscripted one, the same “egalitarian” approach would seem a foregone conclusion.

The Senate’s bill still needs to go through a reconciliation process with a different House version of the legislation, and representatives may stall the process or undermine the amendment.

The White House, moreover, has threatened to veto the defense bill, but only due to other provisions that the administration’s Office of Management and Budget called “attempts to micromanage” the Department of Defense. The overwhelming number of senators who approved the bill, however, would be more than enough to override a veto.

Whatever the fate of the appropriations bill and National Defense Authorization Act amendment, knowledgeable observers maintain that including women in the requirement to register with Selective Service will, one way or another, become the law of the land.

“Whether in this debate or through the courts…” asserted Nora Bensahel, a military policy analyst at American University’s School of International Service, “it just seems that now that you have women allowed to serve in any position in the military, there is no logical basis to say women should not be drafted.”

Logic and reason, though, are not always identical. A computer may not distinguish between a man and woman tapping on its keys, but a thinking human being would be a fool to consider women and men interchangeable.

There is every reason to ensure that men and women are paid equally for equal work, and that they are equally subject to, and protected by, the law. A right is a right and a responsibility a responsibility. But there is a point where reason demands respect for the difference between men and women.

Unfortunately, our society seems, in a number of ways, to have become unmoored from that respect. The acceptance of the notion that women should be conscripted into military service should the draft be revived is the latest display of that unmooring.