Will Women On Subs Damage Fetuses, Endanger Man Hugs?

When the U.S. Navy first announced that they will allow women to serve on submarines, it was generally met with approval. But in the past month, more detractors have come forward. Some are "concerned," while others are just plain misogynist.

We've already delved into the message boards of several forums for military wives, where more than a few ladies had expressed their displeasure with the Navy's decision. While much of their concern had to do with the so-called "moral problem" of having temptresses on board with their men, some women raised more legitimate issues, including that of pregnancy. Some of the more reasonable commenters wondered how would crews deal with a pregnant woman on board, and, more importantly, is it safe? According to Dr. Roger C. Dunham, the answer to the second question might be no or at least not yet.

Writing for the L.A. Times, Dunham expresses his reservations about having women serve on submarines. While he seems genuinely worried about the health of the sailors (and their unborn children), something about the tone of his piece rubs me the wrong way. According to Dunham, who, it should be noted, served as on a submarine during the Cold War, sailors must pass by the nuclear reactor, which is located at the center of the vessel, four to six times a day. This kind of radiation probably won't cause any health problems for most adults, but it might be the kiss of death for a fetus. Maybe. He writes:

In civilian life, a pregnant woman must first don a lead shield to protect her unborn baby before she has a chest X-ray (delivering about 10 millirems of gamma energy) or for a mammogram (70 millirems of gamma energy). But lead shields on submarines do not entirely protect personnel from the far more damaging neutron energy. Although the neutron shield system used helps reduce exposure, it is impossible to eliminate all neutron energy from reaching crew members. If a female submariner became pregnant just before deployment, the first weeks at sea could expose a tiny, radiation-sensitive fetus to significant radiation during a time when the fetus is at highest risk and before the woman may even know she's pregnant.

How much radiation does it take to cause harm to fetal tissue? We really don't know. Any radiation is harmful to dividing cells, but detectable damage is much harder to determine. We know that fetal doses between 1,000 millirems and 10,000 millirems create a "low" level of congenital malformations, mental retardation, uterine growth retardation or childhood cancer. Is "low" acceptable? Is "low" reassuring if a future baby is not perfect? Would "low" absolve the government and taxpayers from liability?

He calls on the Navy to answer these questions, and to determine a policy for pregnant sailors, before allowing women to board ship. While Dunham raises a few legitimate points, it seems that this could be fairly easily solved, by, say, suggesting that women not get pregnant before they begin their 90 day service. Dunham's objections feel rather paternalistic in nature, as though women can't be trusted to gauge the risks and make their own decisions.

But while Dunham's latent sexism is at least couched in concern, other detractors are far less subtle. The New York Times reports that members of the "Silent Service" (which is just a sinister sounding name for submariners) are becoming increasingly vocal in their objections. John Mason, a retired senior chief petty officer, is leading the fight against midshipmen like Jessica Wilcox (shown at top middle). Mason has started an online petition and so far nearly 550 military personal, retired and active-duty, have put their names on the list. Several wives have also jumped on the bandwagon, arguing (this should sound familiar by now) that the submarine is no place for a woman. "The chief of the boat calls it a brotherhood of master mariners - not a brother and sisterhood," an unnamed sailor told the Times. "If all of a sudden they put females on my submarine, things would change so drastically, I don't think we would be able to flow as well."

Mason is also worried about the end of a brotherhood. He claims women will put an end to the kind of male bonding "that involves close physical contact, like man hugs and bottom pats." We suppose he means that having a woman around would make everything so unbearably sexual that hugs, man-man or otherwise, would be utterly impossible. True, it will no longer be purely a "brotherhood," but the army gave up that battle a long time ago. As it turns out, women are able to serve alongside men, and soldiers are perfectly capable of bonding with people of the opposite sex without spontaneously combusting - or worse, impregnating someone.

Radiation Exposure And Women On U.S. Submarines [L.A. Times]
Quiet Resistance To Women On Subs [New York Times]

Related: Navy Wives Worry About The Threat Of Women On Subs