Underlying the debate over whether to exempt some parents from Persian Gulf duty is an apparent consensus among legislators, policy experts and military officials that any policy change should not be gender-based.

While nothing so dramatically separates the sexes as a woman's ability to bear children, there appears to be little support for a government policy that would automatically designate military women as the parent primarily responsible for caring for children.

Not even new mothers who are fighting deployment to the gulf while their infants are a few weeks old believe there should be a policy that exempts only mothers from the war.

"I think whoever's MOS {military occupation specialty} is the most important should be the one to go. I'm not sexist," said Army Spec. 4 Sara Davis Waters, 24, of Clarksville, Tenn., who is appealing her call-up because her husband is in Saudi Arabia and she does not want to leave their 2-year-old daughter in someone else's care.

"I'd hate to leave her," said Waters, a helicopter electrician. "But if my husband were here, I wish I could go."

The idea of exempting single parents or one parent in a military marriage from gulf duty has gained attention recently in reports about military children left in the care of relatives and friends.

First Lady Barbara Bush mentioned the problem to reporters this month, expressing her confidence in the Pentagon's ability to "come up with the right answer. . . . we've got to work it all out." Bills that would exempt single parents or one parent of a military couple have been introduced in the House and Senate recently and the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and compensation is scheduled to hold hearings on the matter today.

Last week the Pentagon released data showing that the war has left children from about 17,500 families without the custodial single parent who usually cares for them or without both parents. About 16,300 single parents have been deployed in Operation Desert Storm, most of them men, as have about 1,200 military couples.

The military requires its personnel to designate someone to take care of children in the event of exercises or deployment. Although the military can grant exemptions in hardship cases when no adequate child-care provider is available, Pentagon officials say the designation policy is working well, with minor exceptions, and that to grant exemptions to parents already deployed in the gulf would greatly hinder the military's effectiveness.

Critics say that wartime child-care arrangements are, by the very fact that children are cared for by someone other than one of their parents, an unacceptable consequence of the war. The technological nature of the war, with Iraqi Scud missiles able to reach mixed-sex, non-combat units, has stirred fears that casualties may not be limited to combat zones and that this war, so far from the United States, could still produce war orphans.

Many advocates of parental exemptions from duty reject any type of government policy that would have the effect of hindering women's opportunities for career advancement. These include such politically disparate lawmakers as Reps. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

"I would be very nervous about saying mothers can't serve. These mothers are volunteers," said Alice M. Rivlin, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I don't see why a mother's choice should be any more restricted than a father's choice should be."

In expressing his opposition Saturday to legislation that would exempt one parent from service, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney used the equity argument. "Nobody's serving in the military today who did not ask to serve, and the only way to avoid the kind of situation where you have two parents with dependents serving is to prohibit people from serving if they get married," he said on CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday" program. "If you have a man and woman both serving, meet in the service, marry, have a family, why should one of them be kicked out?"

Studies of early childhood development are mixed in their conclusions about whether a child needs a mother more than a father, although in practice, mothers are usually the primary caretakers.

"If you give the child very good parenting by somebody during the first year or two, the baby's needs can be met," said John Schowalter, president of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and director of clinical services at the Yale Child Study Center. ". . . whether that's the mother or someone else, it's less important for the child, but you need continuity of care."

Schowalter supports parental exemptions and said a regulation would relieve military personnel from having to make the difficult decision of staying with their units, with whom they have developed an esprit de corps, or with their children. It would limit "survivor guilt" for those who stayed at home, he said.

"We shouldn't put parents in this conflict," Schowalter said. "A rule will get them off the hook." He added, however, that the choice of which parent would go should be left to the couple.

In reality, said policy experts and military women, if the choice were left to married couples, their decisions would likely mirror civilian society; the preponderance of child-care responsibility would fall to mothers, they said.

"The parents should be able to decide between them and I'm sure if they did, then the wife would be the one to stay," said Lance Cpl. Pam Woody, 23, of Corvallis, Ore., who was discharged from the Marines this week after spending five days at Camp Pendleton, Calif., away from the 9-month-old she is still nursing.

Conservative women's groups such as the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America are among those who argue that mothers should be exempted from duty. In doing so, the CWA denounced the "gender neutralization of not only the military, but of society in general" in a recent statement that also rejected feminism as being opposed to the interests of families and children.

"If a woman has a baby, she is completely responsible for the child," said the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, who believes women with minor children should not be allowed in the military. "It's an embarrassment to the men of this country to send women to fight Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. They should show their manhood. The military should make a judgment that mothers are just like men with disabilities."

But even raising the issue of exemptions makes Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the feminist Center for Women Policy Studies uncomfortable. "I can see the handwriting on the wall. . . . it's always going to be the women that stay home," she said.

"We've all fought like hell for equal rights for women, which means equal responsibility," Wolfe added. "Now we're coming up to some of the really difficult issues where policy has not caught up to reality."

Correspondent William Branigin in Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.