Should combat positions be open to women?

Are Americans ready to see their daughters drafted and sent off to war?

That’s what Anthony Sicree, author of a 2010 essay in Touchstone magazine, thinks will be the end result of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s Jan. 24 announcement that rules barring women from combat positions would be overturned.

The move was hailed by many feminists and by some servicewomen, who are barred from some promotions within the service if they don’t have official “combat experience.” Women who have served or are now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan pointed out that in some ways, the rule change was simply a recognition of the way wars are fought now: Women are often sent out with combat units as helicopter pilots, medics or intelligence officers, even if they are not formally assigned to those units. And there isn’t a clear distinction between front lines and assignments in rear areas, anyway.

Indeed, Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first woman killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and her unit mates Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson — all of whom were taken prisoner when their convoy was ambushed — were members of a maintenance company in the Army’s quartermaster corps.

Women’s unique gifts

The Catholic Church has no specific teaching about whether women should be allowed to serve in combat units. A spokesman for the Archdiocese for the Military, USA, said no one from the archdiocese would comment, and a request for comment to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops received no response.

But the move to open up jobs that are defined by their combat roles to women has drawn criticism from some in Catholic circles who say the move does nothing to raise the status of women and fails to honor women’s feminine nature.

The key understanding is that while men and women have equal dignity and both are indispensable to humanity, they have different gifts and different roles to play. Forcing them into roles that are better suited to men devalues women’s unique gifts, said R. Mary Lemmons, co-director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture and associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

“Placing American women in combat at this time — when there are enough men willing and able to fight — does not further the equality of women,” she said in an email interview. “It rather harms them because it requires young women, at the height of their sexual attractiveness and vulnerability, not only to act like one of the boys, but to live like one of the boys for extended periods of time. This rejection of femininity harms women even while it affirms the masculinity of the men. Placing women in combat thus disrespects their womanhood, and inculcates the general perspective that masculinity is better than femininity.”

Blessed Pope John Paul II touched on the topic of sexual and gender discrimination in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”). He reflected on Genesis 3:16, in which the woman is told, “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

That domination is a direct result of original sin, he wrote, and something that men and women must resist, but not by making women more like men.

“Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words ‘He shall rule over you’ (Gn 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the ‘masculinization’ of women,” the letter says. “In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’ There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not ‘reach fulfillment,’ but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness.”

“How then does putting women in combat help men overcome their tendency not to value femininity?” Lemmons asked. “Would making men fight side by side with women in combat increase the likelihood of them treating women with respect or increase their disdain for the inability of women to be exactly like a man? What does the extraordinary high rate of rape within the military tell us about how difficult it is for men to respect women?”

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took a similar tack in his 2004 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” In the letter, he said it’s a mistake to confuse “equality” with “sameness” between the sexes, even if their roles are blurred with the laudable goal of reducing the domination of one sex over the other.

Special risks

Sicree, a geochemist, said he was moved to write “Mothers in the Line of Fire: Women in Combat is a Pro-Life Matter of Moral Theology” (Touchstone, January/February 2010) by concerns about his four daughters.

“My long-standing contention is that they intend full well to draft my daughters,” he said.

While doing so would be more difficult than changing the rules on women in combat — because it is a law, not merely a military policy, that requires young men to register for Selective Service when they turn 18 — it’s not unconceivable. Countries that do have compulsory military service require it of women as well as men.

The main problem, as Sicree sees it, is that women can become pregnant, especially the young, healthy women who would be most eligible for combat assignments. That means women could carry their unborn children into combat. If it is immoral for soldiers to expose non-combatants to the dangers of battle, he argued, isn’t it just as immoral for female soldiers to expose the babies they could be carrying in their wombs?

He also noted that nearly every female U.S. soldier who has been taken prisoner and has survived has reported being sexually assaulted while in captivity. That puts women at a special risk.

Other aspects of female physiology give Lemmons pause: Would carrying the heavy survival gear and weapons be more burdensome for women? Women are born with all the eggs their bodies will ever generate, and combat conditions could put them at risk. Plus, women are best able to bear the burdens of pregnancy when they are young and strong.

“Any society that is willing to risk the health of those responsible for conceiving and bearing the next generation for the sake of an ideology is a society with a death wish,” she said. “Any society with a death wish hates women who want to fulfill their femininity by being mothers and caring for children.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.