DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, this next story begins a simple question. Should women have to register for the draft? Turns out the answer is anything but simple. The Supreme Court seemed to settle things decades ago, but the basis for that ruling is gone after the Pentagon opened all military positions to women. Here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: During the last year of his presidency, Jimmy Carter resurrected a legal obligation that had lapsed. All males ages 18 through 25 would once again have to register with the Selective Service. Carter wanted women as well as men to have to sign up, but Congress limited that registration to males only. In early 1981, the matter ended up before the Supreme Court, as NPR's Nina Totenberg reported at the time.
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NINA TOTENBERG: The issue - is the all-male draft registration system unconstitutional sex discrimination?
ROBERT GOLDBERG: If I have to register for the draft, then my wife should also.
WELNA: One of those bringing that constitutional challenge was a young Californian named Robert Goldberg. He was asked by a reporter if he wanted his wife to serve in combat.
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GOLDBERG: One thing is whether or not I want her to. Another thing is whether it's equitable for me to serve in combat and for her to be excluded merely on the basis of sex.
WELNA: The Supreme Court overruled a lower court and upheld the male-only registration requirement. It did so arguing that because women were barred from combat positions in the military, they would not have the same chances for promotions as men. It was therefore not unconstitutional for Congress to distinguish between them. But as of this month, all women are eligible for combat duty. With that, Congress seems to have lost its court-endorsed rationale for limiting Selective Service registration to males only.
JOHN MCCAIN: We'll review the whole policy and whether Selective Service should apply to women or not.
WELNA: That's John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He plans to hold hearings next month on the question of women signing up for a possible draft.
MCCAIN: I think it's paradoxical that they wouldn't be required to sign up if they're eligible to serve in every area of the military.
WELNA: Other lawmakers oppose making any changes. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, who's also on the Senate Armed Services panel, says Defense Secretary Ash Carter's decision to make every position in the military open to women was the wrong call.
ROGER WICKER: Because if you listen to the generals, they would recommend against women in combat.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I think it's a very important issue that we actually begin to debate.
WELNA: That's New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She, too, sits on the Armed Services Committee. And she thinks an equal opportunity for women to hold military jobs may mean there's an equal obligation for signing up with the Selective Service.
GILLIBRAND: It doesn't mean we're going to ask all women to serve in combat. It means we may ask all women to serve in some public service capacity where they can help the national need at a time of crisis. I think that is a very legitimate conversation.
WELNA: Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst agrees. Ernst served in the Iowa National Guard and Army Reserves for more than 20 years, and did combat duty in Iraq. The time has come, she says, to talk about women signing up for a possible draft.
JONI ERNST: I'm not pushing for that, but I think now that we are able to perform all types of occupations within the military, we need to have that discussion. So I look forward to it. I think it's going to be very, very interesting.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.