Topic: Professions & Institutions
The Dilemma of the Expectant Mother and the State Trooper
From Boston comes this tale of a classic ethical conflict, raising the question that every individual must ponder eventually: when, if ever, do circumstances dictate action that is contrary to the rules, or even the law?
Expectant mother Jennifer Davis was on her way to the hospital when she found herself stuck in a traffic jam, as her contractions were coming just a few minutes apart. John, her husband, was driving, keeping his cool for his wife’s sake, moving past the bumper-to-bumper autos by slowly proceeding in the breakdown lane of the highway. Two Massachusetts state troopers had okayed their emergency use of the lane, while advising them to be cautious and keep their hazard lights on. They pulled up behind a third state trooper to ask if they could continue using the lane to reach the next exit on the way to the hospital.
But this trooper said no, and wrote them a $100 ticket for driving in the breakdown lane. Then he made them wait for their citation as he finished writing up another driver’s ticket. He even asked Davis to prove that she was pregnant, she claims.
"He said, ‘What’s under your jacket?’ I said, ‘My belly,’ " Davis said. "He waited and gestured with his head like, ‘OK, let’s see it.’ He waited for me to unzip my jacket. I mean, it was so clear that I was pregnant!"
The story had a happy ending: although Davis was deep into labor when she made it to the hospital, it turned out that there was still time to spare. Her daughter Charlotte Jane was born five hours after the encounter with the trooper.
But that is all irrelevant to the ethical question. Neither the Davises nor the trooper knew what the outcome would be when they requested his help, and whether his decision was an ethical one cannot rest on what happened subsequently. Unethical acts can have good consequences, or no consequences at all. Ethically admirable decisions can turn out disastrously. We can only judge what the trooper did based on the circumstances when he chose his conduct.
Was he acting ethically?
He was certainly doing his job by the book, that job being to enforce the law. Driving in a break-down lane is illegal, even for emergencies. Police may have the option of opening break-down lanes under special circumstances, but it is an inherently dangerous practice. However, laws don’t always make sense in specific situations, and it is therefore part of any law-enforcement official’s job to recognize such situations and act appropriately. Someone who darts across a busy street to avoid a rampaging lunatic (this actually happened to me in New York City) shouldn’t be cited for jaywalking, for example.
Let us get the easy calls out of the way first. Giving the Davises a ticket when two troopers had already told the couple they could use the lane is obviously wrong and unfair. The trooper wasn’t obligated to agree with the other troopers, but he was bound by their permission up until he rescinded it. Similarly, if it is true that the trooper intentionally made the couple wait while he wrote another ticket, this was clear-cut, gratuitous meanness, and ethically indefensible. Refusing to make an exception to the law is one thing; causing an anxious couple in a stressful situation intentional distress is indefensible.
As for insisting on confirmation that Jennifer Davis was really pregnant…well, maybe. Maybe the trooper had been burned before, and maybe he’s become a hard-bitten cynic over the years. Whatever the reason for his suspicions, he isn’t exactly wrong to verify a claim of special needs, for there are fakers and liars aplenty in Boston, as elsewhere. His wasn’t Golden Rule behavior by any means, but it was still arguably legitimate police procedure.
Was stopping them from driving in the lane also legitimate and fair? Despite all the heat the Massachusetts State Troopers are taking for the incident, the Scoreboard can’t say the trooper was wrong. The Davises said that he offered to call an ambulance: it isn’t as if he was unwilling to help. Whether to permit them to drive in the lane was a discretionary decision, and after balancing concerns and duties, the trooper concluded that the situation did not warrant bending the rules, even though his colleagues had come to the opposite conclusion. Neither decision was unethical.
The troopers who bent the law were being more empathetic and caring; the last trooper was arguably being more responsible and prudent. He embraced more of an absolutist approach (Obey the law, period) in a setting where it has some utilitarian value. The trooper wanted to convey the message that personal emergencies are not sufficient justification for driving in a breakdown lane. Who knows? The Davis’s story might save a life some day by stopping another motorist in gridlock from using the lane in a lesser emergency. We can justify the trooper’s conduct by regarding it as the sacrifice of short-term, narrow needs for broader, long-term public safety.
This is what makes ethical conflict so challenging: two or more important
ethical principles point to different solutions, both of which can be
supported by legitimate ethical analysis. We can and will argue about
what the most ethical conduct is when ethical conflicts arise. But until
either experience or analysis can convincingly show that one choice is
superior to the others, none of the options can be fairly called unethical.