Like a bad penny that keeps turning up, every few years someone on Capitol Hill decides it would be a good idea to make women subject to a military draft. In 2016, the Republicans suggested it, in 2020 the Democrats suggested it, and now in 2024, Democrats are at it again. The proposal reliably comes around before every presidential election, coincident with the defense authorization bills necessary to keep the military running.

Back in 2020, though the Supreme Court refused to weigh in, deferring to Congress, the government commission assigned to study the issue concluded that women should be required to register for the draft. Military chiefs endorse the concept, pointing to the troubling shortfall in recruitment for the all-volunteer military — a shortfall of about 41,000 in 2023.

Championing the change, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed, D-R.I., opined that Republican opposition to the proposal “just doesn’t make any sense.”

On the contrary, it’s the proposal to draft women that not only doesn’t make sense, but is highly ironic. Let’s count the ironies here. And let’s start from the reality-based premise that only women give birth to the new generation of Americans.

What, at a minimum, must a nation have to survive? It must have protection, even physical protection in the form of soldiers willing to lay down their health and even their lives if necessary to counter threats to the nation’s security. But protection is not enough for a nation to survive. Even a well-protected nation will die out in the space of a generation if there is no reproduction. Only through reproduction does a nation have a future. These two tasks, protection and reproduction, are the fundamental tasks of the nation.

Both of these tasks are personally costly. But only one — protection — is recognized for that cost. Let’s examine the costs of the other.

Though we rarely couch it in these terms, women, like soldiers, offer to lay down their health and even their lives so that their nation might have a future in the new citizens brought into the world. That we have not seen this reproductive labor as a patriotic service on a par with men’s service in combat says more about our society than it says about the intrinsic value of this work. By the time they reach menopause, about 86% of women in the U.S. have become mothers; far less than half that percentage of men will have served in the military.

Indeed, consider that in the history of our nation — from 1776 onwards — more women have died or been seriously harmed in the processes of childbirth than men have died or been wounded in battle. Examining the time period 1900-2019, comparing combat deaths versus maternal deaths for the entire 120 year period, there were an estimated 432,895 combat deaths and an estimated 854,824 maternal deaths.

Think about that — there were almost twice as many maternal deaths as combat deaths over the past 120 years.

But what if we delimited it to the first few decades of the 20th century, when we had World War I and World War II? And maybe even throw in the Korean War for good measure? From the period 1900-1953, there were an estimated 379,114 combat deaths and an estimated 804,514 maternal deaths — over twice as many maternal deaths as combat deaths during the bloodiest part of the 20th century.

What about the 21st century? There were an estimated 5,686 combat deaths and an estimated 13,219 maternal deaths — again, well over twice as many maternal deaths. Indeed, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is now more than double what it was 35 years ago (currently 19.0 per 100,000). The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate of all the developed countries in the world, and it is likely to get even worse under the patchwork of post-Dobbs state laws that make abortion illegal even when the health of the mother is at stake.

Opinion: Volunteer armed forces protect American freedom valiantly

So tell me again why “it’s only fair” that women be added to the Selective Service mandate? More women are already laying down their lives for our society in greater numbers than men are. Drafting women would mean a grossly disproportionate burden of physical risk would fall on women compared to men.

And this is not even to mention the “mommy tax” on a woman’s lifetime earnings of having a child, which can amount to over $1 million over time. Indeed, the greatest risk factor for being poor in old age in the United States is to be a mother (and not a father). Motherhood is not just a physical, bodily sacrifice then, but can come with a profound economic sacrifice as well.

There’s a GI Bill for all the soldiers who volunteered to lay down their health and their lives for their country, so that soldiers are not asked to make both an economic and physical sacrifice for their country. There is no such bill for the mothers. No, indeed, the pay gap between mothers and childless women is wider than the gap between childless women and men. That’s because, I am told, women choose to have children; no one forced them to. Of course, in today’s all-volunteer army, soldiers choose to fight for their country; no one forced them to.


There’s yet another irony obscured in all the discussion. Part of the the military’s concern over recruitment has to do with falling birth rates. The United States now has a total fertility rate of about 1.62, far below the 2.1 children per woman necessary to keep the population stable. That’s a historic low for our country. Experts suggest the decline is not because fewer women desire to have children, but because our society makes it difficult for women to make that choice. Drafting women makes that decision even more difficult.

One last irony to mention — who is making the decision to go to war? By and large, it’s men. Only 25% of U.S. senators are female, and only 29% of representatives are. Women do not have anywhere near an equal say in whether our nation goes to war, and yet would be forced to assume greater burdens to support these wars than they already do.

All in all, one has to laugh at this proposal if only to avoid crying.

Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.

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