The Story: Recent news events have resurrected the debate over whether women should be required to register for the military draft. 

The Background: Last week the two most senior military leaders in the Army and Marine Corps testified before Congress saying that that women should be required to register for the draft now that the Pentagon had opened all combat roles to them. The “draft” is the commonly used term for mandatory military conscription. This is a means of fulfilling the manpower requirements of the military during a time of conflict.

According to The New York Times, during a Senate hearing on women in combat, Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he believed that “every American who’s physically qualified should register for the draft.” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, said he agreed.

The acting secretary of the Army, Patrick J. Murphy, encouraged Congress to look into the matter, saying “it should be a national debate.”

Also last week, Congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-California), a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) introduced legislation to require that women register for the draft with the Selective Service. Their legislation, the Draft America’s Daughters Act, requires registration for women no later than 90 days after the enactment of the measure or 90 days after the Secretary of Defense opens all combat specialties to women.

Hunter says he introduced the legislation even though he would likely vote against it. “It’s wrong and irresponsible to make wholesale changes to the way America fights its wars without the American people having a say on whether their daughters and sisters will be on the front lines of combat,” Hunter said. He added, “If this Administration wants to send 18- to 20-year-old women into combat, to serve and fight on the front lines, then the American people deserve to have this discussion through their elected representatives.”

In the most recent Republican presidential candidate debate, Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie each affirmed that women should be required to sign up for the military draft. (Although he wasn’t asked during the debate, Sen. Ted Cruz later said he would not support including women in the draft.)

In the United States, the draft has been employed by the federal government in four “conflicts”: the Civil War; World War I; World War II; and the Cold War (including the Korean and Vietnam Wars). From 1940 until 1973, both in war and peacetime, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces. The draft was ended when the United States military moved to an all-volunteer military force in 1973.

Since then, the issue of drafting women has arisen several times from the 1940 to the 1990s.

Because of a shortage of nurses in World War II, President Roosevelt requested a nurse draft bill in his 1945 State of the Union address. A bill quickly passed in the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate.

In 1975 men no longer had to register and the Selective Service was placed in “deep standby.” But in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in reaction to reports that the standby Selective Service System might not meet wartime requirements for rapid manpower expansion of the active and reserve forces, President Carter reactivated the registration process for men in 1980. Carter also sent a recommendation to Congress that the act be amended to provide presidential authority to “register, classify, and examine women for conscription into the Armed Forces. Congress declined to give the president the authority to draft women.”

That same year, a federal lawsuit was brought by several men claiming the gender-based discrimination of the draft violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. In that case, Rostker v. Goldberg, (1981), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion, ruling that there was no violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court based its decision largely on the Department of Defense’s policy excluding women from combat. In the majority opinion, the Court noted, “Men and women, because of the combat restrictions on women, are simply not similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft.”

The issue was considered again in 1992, 1994, and 1998 but rejected each time because the policy excluding women from combat roles remained in place.

However, starting this past January, the Defense Department lifted all gender-based restrictions on military service. This removed the primary legal barrier that excluded women from having to register with the Selective Service. If the issue is challenged again in the courts, the Supreme Court is likely to rule that women must be included in any future drafts.

Why It Matters: There is a deep division within evangelicalism about whether gender roles are part of God’s creational norms or solely cultural constructs imposed by society. While this debate often centers on roles within marriage and the church, it sometimes spills over into the secular realm. The issue of women and draft is a primary example.

Those who oppose conscripting women are often baffled that such a measure would even be considered by a civilized nation (see, for example, this article by Andrew T. Walker and this one by Greg Gibson and Owen Strachan). But those of us who hold this view may have already lost the debate. Currently, most Americans appear to support drafting women. 

A poll taken in 2013 found that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe women should be eligible for the draft. Women favor the draft at a much higher rate than men (61 percent to 35 percent), and Democrats favor the draft much more than Republicans (80 percent to 50 percent). Overall, 59 percent of those polled said women should be drafted.

A likely reason for the increased support is a foolish and historically ignorant belief that the military draft is an outdated institution and will never be used in the future. While the draft has indeed been dormant for 42 years, it is likely to return during America’s next large-scale conflict. The reason the draft will be needed is obvious: relative to some other nations, the United States is woefully lacking in manpower.

Currently, the armed forces comprises about 2 million men and women, both on active duty and in the reserves. The potential pool of draft eligible young men (ages 18 to 25) on file with the Selective Service is approximately 16 million.

In contrast, China has an available manpower of 750 million—more than twice the entire population of the United States. They also have more than 100 million draft eligible men, with nearly 20 million men in China reaching military age every year. Although it has less manpower than China, Russia also has about 45 million men of draft age.

If we were to face either or both of those countries in violent conflict, the draft would need to be implemented in the United States on a broad scale. Having already shown that drafting women has popular support and having no legal basis to exclude anyone based on gender, young women would be drafted in numbers equal to young men.

Of course, a conflict of such scale is unlikely within the next 30 to 50 years. Few of us are likely to have our children, whether sons or daughters, be conscripted into service. That is why many people have no qualms about supporting “gender equality” by allowing women to be drafted: It doesn’t affect them directly. They seem to have no concerns about forcing their granddaughters or great-granddaughter to be subjected to the horrors of war. As long as it doesn’t directly affect them, they are allowed to be seen as embracing “equality.” 

Forcing women to register with the Selective Service is likely to happen within the next few years. But the need for them to be drafted is likely still decades away. In the meantime, we can continue to pray for a moral revolution, and that we’ll wake up to the realization that a nation that sends its young women to fight its wars is a nation that may no longer be worth defending.