Women, combat, and babies: these are three words that should probably never be uttered in the same sentence, but two recent news releases about women in the United States Military caught my eye. The first was in December when Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that all combat roles would now be open to women. Female soldiers will now be able to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into battle. They can be Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and Green Berets. The only stipulation is that they can meet the standards of the job they wish to fill.
The other announcement was that the U.S. Military will now increase maternity leave for new mothers from 6 to 12 weeks. Several of the branches had just increased it to 18 weeks, so this is actually a reduction for them, but now all branches will have a uniform 12 weeks leave after the birth of a child.
This made me wonder, what happens if a woman in a war zone or combat job gets pregnant? Currently, a deployed pregnant woman is immediately sent back to the states. Usually, she is given the option to leave the military or stay in. If she chooses to stay, adjustments are made to her work environment. For instance she cannot wear body army or climb a ladder, she can only work 8 hours a day, and exposure to hazardous chemicals is eliminated. Once the baby is born, she has 6 month to get back into physical shape but she cannot be deployed overseas until 1 year after the birth.
I applaud the military for allowing women the same opportunities as men, and also for providing new mothers with better family leave than many major U.S. corporations. I am still, however, trying to reconcile in my mind the thought of a women in a combat situation potentially becoming pregnant. With women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m sure it’s already happening. Soldiers on deployment are supposed to abstain from sexual relations, but soldiers are only human and many do not. Pregnancies still happen. Many women in the military, upon finding themselves pregnant, have reported pressure to have abortions and if they didn’t, they were looked down upon. It is often assumed that the woman became pregnant on purpose in order to get out of the service. They have forfeited scholarships and pay increases and felt shame and guilt for their inability to fulfill their duties to their country.
I would like to suggest a solution to this situation. I believe if a woman wants to serve in a combat position, she should give up her right for that period of time to bear children. Every woman going into a combat situation should receive birth control implants before being deployed. These are small silicon "sticks" that are implanted surgically under the skin and release hormones that prevent pregnancy. These are currently sold under the brand names Nexplanon in the U.S. and Jadelle outside of the U.S., among others. The implantation would be done, of course, with the woman's full knowledge and consent. With this method of contraception, there is no need to remember to take a pill, they can't fall out or be lost or forgotten, and they remain in effect until they are surgically removed. We’ve all seen the pictures of new recruits in line at boot camp, receiving 3 or 4 shots in both arms at once. The military immunizes soldiers against all types of conditions which would interfere with their ability to serve. Why not “immunize” women going into combat against pregnancy as well? After all, once you enlist you are considered “government property” and you forfeit all kinds of other personal rights. Women who want to serve in combat should willingly postpone pregnancy until they are in a position to bear and raise a child.
We currently have an all-volunteer military. It takes time and money to recruit and train enough soldiers to fill all the jobs available. The U.S. government has made an investment in every solder, and when a woman in combat becomes pregnant, much of that investment is lost. She can no longer perform the duties she was trained to perform, and someone else needs to quickly take her place. Also, the fatigue and nausea of early pregnancy could easily make her unfit for combat and jeapordize her ability to perform her duties, endangering fellow soldiers’ lives. If a woman wants to serve in the most dangerous roles, she should willingly give up her right to reproduce temporarily. The military is currently implementing procedures to allow soldiers to freeze sperm and eggs, in case an injury happens that would prevent them from having children later on.
I am all for equal rights for women. Giving up one’s fertility for a limited amount of time actually makes women more equal to men. If a woman’s religion prohibits her from using birth control, she will need to make a choice between combat and following her religious convictions. She can always opt for military positions that do not require it.
The bottom line is this: women, combat, and babies don’t mix. If the military wants to put women into combat, and women want to willingly go there, they need to cooperatively do something to remove the possibility of pregnancy from the mix. Mandatory Norplant implants for women in combat would be the perfect solution. The cost of the implants would be a bargain compared to the cost of lost personnel and additional recruiting and training required to replace expectant mothers who can no longer perform their combat duties.