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Women in combat and natural limits
January 25, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
A couple of stories caught my attention this week: allowing women in combat and requiring schools to open sports to the disabled.
The Pentagon announced on Thursday that it will end a ban on women serving in close-combat positions in infantry and armored units. One argument in favor of this is that women are already seeing combat to some extent, even though they have been serving in auxiliary positions. Officially opening up combat positions will probably also allow more women in the military the opportunity to gain promotions and attain higher ranks in all branches of the armed forces.
I can see some potential problems with this policy change as well. Time had an interesting article that quoted actual statistics comparing women in the military to men. Based on its own statistics, women are hospitalized 30 percent more than men in the military, even when you take out the number of women hospitalized for pregnancy and delivery. The average woman in the military also does not have the upper-body strength that a man in the military has. This would be potentially hazardous on the battlefield if a woman is called upon to haul an injured comrade to safety.
I would say that any woman who is put in a combat position ought to have to meet the same physical requirements as the men. Any woman who isn't strong enough to be out there is liable to get herself and the other members of her unit killed. If standards are lowered to make it easier for women to enter those combat positions, the men in the unit will likely resent it and unit cohesion will be undermined.
There's probably also a greater chance that any female in combat who is taken prisoner might be raped or sexually assaulted by the enemy, though I suppose that's one of the many risks that women in the military knowingly take on when they join. If they know that's a risk and still want to go into combat, I don't think that possibility alone should prevent it.
The Obama administration is also requiring school districts to open up extracurricular sports to students with disabilities. USA Today cited the case of a Maryland wheelchair athlete who competed in the 2004 Paralympics in Atlanta but had to sue the school to be able to join her high school track team. I wonder how that worked if the girl was competing against athletes who weren't in wheelchairs. What if her racing wheelchair was so fast that it actually gave her an unfair advantage, for instance?
Reasonable accommodations can probably be made in a lot of cases to let an otherwise capable athlete with a disability compete. As USA Today noted, that might include using a flashing light that goes off at the same time as a starter pistol to alert a deaf track athlete that the race has started. In other cases, it could get expensive or difficult. Would a school have to let a kid who uses a wheelchair play on the basketball team with other athletes, for instance? The same article mentioned providing "unified teams" made up of students with disabilities and those without them. Would such a team have to be the varsity team or would it satisfy requirements for it to be an intramural team?
Advocates are cheering both these moves because they open up opportunities for people who have previously been denied to them. However, I think there are also problems with policies that fail to recognize natural limits, like the difference in strength between a woman and a man and the difference in the abilities of an athlete with a disability and one without one.
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