Topic: Professions & Institutions

Law, Ethics, and the Pregnant Teacher
(12/3/2005)

Here are some facts that need to be stated before the Scoreboard examines the case of the pregnant pre-K teacher:

  • Teachers are powerful role models whose conduct is crucial in determining which values are learned and accepted by their students.
  • Catholic schools teach the values and tenets of the Catholic Church, including its position that sexual relations out of wedlock is a sin.
  • Unwed motherhood, especially for teenagers, is a potentially destructive behavior that parents, schools and teachers have an obligation to discourage.
  • The law prevents employers, including schools, from taking any adverse action against an employee because of pregnancy.

Michelle McCusker teaches pre-K at the St. Rose of Lima School in Rockaway Beach, New York, a Catholic school. She is now 18 weeks pregnant, and informed the principal that she hoped to carry the baby to term, but that her plans did not include marrying the baby's father. Two days later, the principal fired McCusker for violating the school's policy prohibiting pre-marital sex. The teacher contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a complaint on her behalf with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Its argument? The school's policy is discriminatory, since it is far easier to tell when female teachers have broken the "no sex while single" rule and thus the effect of the policy is to punish women for conduct that men can engage in virtually without fear of reprisal.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which is named in the lawsuit, has pointed out that all teachers are "required to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions." Its position is fair and reasonable, but I suspect that a court will find otherwise. The ACLU is indeed correct that the effect of the policy is to penalize women who become pregnant out of marriage without penalizing the male employees who may have been responsible for making them that way. But the legal issue, however fascinating, isn't the question here, which is, "Who's right?"

Ethically, the school would be completely justified in firing McCusker for being pregnant. The law won't permit it, because there is no teacher exception to what is generally an excellent principle. But McCusker simply cannot perform her key function as a role model and conveyer of values to her very young charges while being visibly pregnant. She is, in this state, a walking, talking promotion for unwed motherhood. Ironically, she is probably not promoting sexual relations out of wedlock in class, since (one hopes) three and four year olds do not connect pregnancy to sexual activity. And for that same reason there is good reason to suspect that the St. Rose principal is using the no pre-marital sex policy to accomplish what is really a "no unwed pregnancy for teachers" policy. Unfortunately, neither is likely to work if teachers won't cooperate to make it work.

The unethical party here is McCusker. Being a teacher, like belonging to any profession, carries certain special responsibilities. Judges can't show up at masquerade parties dressed as Buckwheat. Baseball players can't bet on baseball games. New York Times reporters can't attend rallies for Hillary Clinton on their free time, no matter how much they'd like to. And teachers at Catholic schools…indeed, teachers at any school…have a professional obligation not to encourage pre-marital sex and especially unmarried pregnancy by showing up in class, well, showing.

Would even the ACLU challenge a school that fired a teacher for wearing a T-shirt reading "Unwed Moms Are Cool!"? No, unless that organization has gone completely around the bend. But that is the message that the law allows Michelle McCusker to send to her students, loud and clear. Thus it is up to McCusker, on her own, to be responsible, since the law allows her to be irresponsible. She shouldn't get pregnant, and if she does, she shouldn't continue to teach. Her actions harm the school and the church, undermining the values she agreed to support by agreeing to take the job in the first place. Her conduct places her students at risk; it doesn't matter how much risk, because any amount is unnecessary. And it betrays her students' parents. Would they have been willing to send their children to McCusker's class if they had known that she was going to teach it "in the family way," though without a family? If they object now, what are their options? Probably to remove their child and find another school, which may be difficult. The parent and child have to suffer, but not McCusker, who is the one responsible, or rather, irresponsible.

That is because, in all likelihood, the law is one her side. Ethical principles, however, are not. Just because the law won't permit others to make you do the right thing is no excuse not to do it.

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