By now, you’ve probably heard about the video in which an unseen man and woman ask a clinic manager at a New Jersey Planned Parenthood clinic for advice. They want to know how to obtain medical care and abortions for underage prostitutes without getting into trouble with the law. The clinic manager tells advises them.
On Feb. 1 Live Action, an anti-abortion group, released a video of this conversation, which has since spurred heated reactions from both pro-life and pro-choice advocates. The debate is fueled, in part, by the fact that the man and woman to whom the clinic manager offered this advice were actors visiting the clinic on behalf of Live Action, and they were secretly recording the session. A representative for the New Jersey clinic told the New York Times that the clinic staff later reported the visit to prosecutors. However, the clinic also fired the manager and described her behavior as “completely unacceptable.”
Live Action’s video, one of several in which the group used hidden cameras in an attempt to expose immoral or illegal activity at Planned Parenthood, was labeled a hoax in the Times article, but it has been viewed by some pro-life advocates as a kind of heroism, a valiant effort to protect the unborn and the safety and health of women. Others, however, disagree. Included in this group are those who support of the rights of the unborn and are concerned about the endangerment of women, but do not approve of Live Action’s methods.
When I viewed the tape I was appalled by the clinic manager’s seeming willingness to gloss over the facts and to go along with the plan to cover up the abuse of minors. On that level, the video is effective. It made me wonder: How widespread is this behavior? Live action has posted six other videos in this series regarding trafficking. But I was also made uneasy by the fact that Live Action gave the clinic manager’s full name in a press release and showed her face in the video (fortunately, in the full-length footage, faces of patients in the waiting room are blurred). There is something unsettling about Live Action advocating for the safety of young women and the unborn through the use of methods that show little regard for the safety of this particular woman.
Live Action states on its Web site that they use “investigative journalism to expose threats against the vulnerable and defenseless.” Let me be clear: I am in favor of ending threats against the vulnerable and defenseless. But if Live Action hopes for its work to be accepted as true journalism, it must hold itself to a higher standard. (Yes, there are news organizations that fall short of this ideal, as well, but that’s not a reason to justify lax standards here.)
In a radio interview, Live Action's president, Lila Rose, offered a possible answer to my initial question when she stated that the fewer-than two dozen videos created by Live Action have exposed an “across-the-board institutional” problem with illegal activity in Planned Parenthood. It's possible that she is correct, but if so, then Live Action has a responsibility to offer additional proof. The claim is a serious accusation, and should be backed by in-depth research that goes beyond the use of hidden cameras. Whether Live Action members consider themselves advocates, journalists or both, they have a responsibility to present the truth, in full, to readers and viewers.
Again, let’s be clear: the incidents caught on tape are not insignificant. And I’m not arguing in favor of abortions, or encouraging underage women to find loopholes that allow them to obtain abortions, or supporting sex trafficking, or any of the things Live Action alleges Planned Parenthood has done. I’m not even arguing that every law with which Planned Parenthood does comply is a just law. But I will argue that the hidden camera footage alone—which features footage from about 3 percent of the Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S.—is not sufficient proof that, as Rose claimed in a radio interview, that “Planned Parenthood knows that they have an institutional crisis on their hands from the top down, and they're doing anything they possibly can in some kind of a smear campaign to shut up the evidence and to keep it away from the public."
From a journalistic point of view, I’m left wondering: What percentage of Live Action’s visits to Planned Parenthood clinics do these videos represent? Did every visit by Live Action to a Planned Parenthood clinic result in the exposure of illegal activity by Planned Parenthood? If so, viewers should know that. Have any of Live Action’s undercover operations resulted in evidence of Planned Parenthood workers following the legal protocol during the counseling session? If so, viewers should know that, too. Live Action must put its own actions into perspective. If the group has, in fact, accurately assessed the scope of the alleged illegal activity at Planned Parenthood, then that’s all the more reason for it to use in-depth reporting that goes beyond the sensational “gotcha” mentality inherent in the use of a hidden-camera.
Most journalists agree that hidden cameras should be used only a last resort, and not as part of an attack. Thousands of people work to combat abortion, and the injustices surrounding it, without stooping to the use of deception.
Of course, it can also be argued that Live Action isn’t really trying to produce journalism; it’s simply trying to further the pro-life cause. But, in an interesting article on Public Discourse, Christopher O. Tollefsen argues that Live Action’s method of combating abortion—lying—is, in fact, contrary to the very heart of that cause. He writes,
[F]or all the good that may come of these videos, the way in which Live Action has made its mark is itself extremely troubling, for it is predicated on a form of falsity, which is exercised in an unloving way. Promising and welcome as the effects of these videos might be, they represent a real and dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement itself by endangering the pro-life movement’s commitment to its ideals of love and truth.
It is tempting to refer to the “pimp” character in Live Action’s videos as an “actor.” But this is misleading. Actors perform for willing and aware audiences who realize they are watching a fiction. The “pimp,” rather, lied, repeatedly and pervasively, in his conversation with the Planned Parenthood worker: he presented himself as other than he truly was, and his purpose in doing so was clearly to deceive.
In so presenting himself, the “pimp,” and all those who abetted him, did damage to his own integrity, creating for himself an appearance in the world deliberately at odds with his inner self. But integrity—a unity of one’s acting self in all its aspects—is a great good, and we destroy that unity in a lie only at a great cost to our wellbeing (this cost is recognized in feelings of guilt and in our attempts to ensure that we do not present a false face to the world).
Of course, the makers of the Live Action video could argue that the end—the good sought—justified a morally problematic means. But such a form of argument is a centerpiece of those arguments for abortion which acknowledge the “special respect and value” owed the unborn child, but which still justify his or her destruction for the sake of the consequences. “Do no evil that good may come about” should be central to the pro-life movement’s ethos.
Nor can it be said that Live Action’s behavior towards the Planned Parenthood workers was loving. Under most circumstances, to speak the truth to another just is a demand of love. But under all circumstances, to seek to deceive is to create a relationship with another based on falsity, and this seems inevitably to be unloving. While often undesired, it is a paradigmatically loving thing to do to make known to another the moral wrongness of what they are doing. Indeed, those who protest and pray outside abortion clinics are acting lovingly in speaking the truth. But to encourage wrongdoing through falsity does no good for the deceived agent.
So, while the increased scrutiny of Planned Parenthood is a good thing, and will conceivably lead to the even greater good of a general defunding of this morally bankrupt organization, I can take no joy in Live Action’s approach. They seem to have “fought fire with fire,” combating deceit and lack of charity with more of the same. The pro-life movement must be better than that, always, and it must be willing to engage in self-criticism when it fails to meet its own exacting standards.
Since the article was published, a online debate about lying has ensued. Counterarguments have been written, and Tollesfen has defended his stance in a second piece. Many questionshave been raised: Is lying different from deception? Is it always wrong? Both sides make for thought-provoking reads. What’s your stance? Is Live Action’s video campaign a form of journalism? Is it advocacy? Is it justified?