Women Serving In Submarines: A Health Issue? (UPDATED)

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Those who have read my posts know that I support the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” just as I support the assignment of women in the military to any and all duties they are qualified to perform—that would include serving aboard our nuclear submarines.

The debate on the latter—women in submarines—continues after top Navy and defense officials made the decision to lift the ban on female submarine crew members.

For example, in a recent article, the Washington Times restates old and tired arguments against the policy change, but it also adds a new and interesting twist.

In addition to the cramped quarters, forced intimacy, “sexual tension,” “special women’s berthing” requirements—with their associated “ship construction challenges”— and combat effectiveness issues and arguments, the Times introduces a new one. One that does deserve some consideration.

According to the Times, “a specialist on undersea medicine is warning Congress that the air inside a submarine can be hazardous to fetal development.”

“Atmosphere controls are different between ships and a submarine’s sealed environment,” retired Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, a former undersea medical officer, told The Washington Times. “There are all types of organic traces that off-gas into the air that have to be removed by mechanical means. You just can’t open a window and let them out.”

In a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, Adm. Scott wrote: “I have serious concerns about the risk to the safety and normal development of an embryo-fetus in the submarine environment…” According to Adm. Scott, a certain percentage of female sailors embark on deployments pregnant or become pregnant during the cruise, and “Unlike surface ships, the sealed environment of the submarine atmosphere poses an increased risk to the normal development of a woman’s embryo-fetus.”

Our Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines and similar nuclear submarines stay submerged for a very, very long time, and I can see where such a situation could pose a risk to the mission, to the female submariner and to the unborn. But for this to materialize, several things need to happen.

First, the study findings need to be validated and the inadequacy of existing or modified filtering/ventilation systems confirmed.

Second, we must assume that pregnant sailors cannot be identified prior to start of mission.

Third, we have to assume that pregnancies will occur while submerged.

To support its arguments, the Times mentions a Navy ship that had “so many pregnant sailors that the news media dubbed it the ‘Love Boat,’” and a Navy Times report from last year that claimed that the number of pregnant sailors in deploying units had nearly doubled to 3,125.

The Times adds:

The Navy, which has 54,000 servicewomen, wrote a 37-page instruction manual on how to handle expectant mothers. They may not serve aboard ship, or in forward deployed billets, after the 20th week of pregnancy.

While so many other arguments against women in the military serving to their full potential are based on flimsy, oftentimes intolerant and chauvinistic arguments, this is one that, in my opinion, merits further debate and investigation.

UPDATE:

In a perhaps unrelated development, the military oriented newspaper Stars and Stripes reports that the Navy is considering a ban on smoking aboard submarines, in order to help clear the recycled air for crews who spend months at a time aboard submerged vessels.

Presently, smoking aboard submarines is allowed, but only in designated areas, which do not include berthing spaces, messes, lounges, and exercise areas.

While such a move isn’t yet official and “while some submariners think the ban is a good long-term plan, they feel it could make for some trying deployments:”

“That will be a real testy sub when it gets underway,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Auel, currently based in Naples, with Submarine Group 8. “As a non-smoker, I think it’s good, but a ban will just push smokers to use a different form of tobacco.

Stars and Stripes adds:

As an unintended consequence, the ban also might curtail certain business dealings.

“Smoking leads to some nefarious behavior onboard submarines,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Grady Lott, a former smoker also assigned to Submarine Group 8. “When you can’t get ’em, you’ll do anything. I knew some folks that paid up to $60 for a pack of cigarettes while they were underway.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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