Ethical issues arise from California center's 'undercover' videos

Life Counts at a "Women Betrayed" rally to Defund Planned Parenthood on Capitol Hill in Washington July 28. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

The use of "undercover" reporting tactics by a California pro-life group in an attempt to expose suspected illegal actions by Planned Parenthood doctors pertaining solicitation of funds for the acquisition of fetal tissue has stirred discussion and debate.

In recent weeks, the California-based Center for Medical Progress has released several videos—and plans to release more—that show doctors affiliated with the nation's leading abortion provider discussing fees for fetal tissue.


Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue from abortions, though it allows reimbursement for some costs connected to the handling and processing of such tissue.

In the first two videos, the center's reporters—armed with video cameras—posed as representatives of a mythical fetal tissue procurement firm who met at public restaurants with the doctors. Over lunch, the reporters pretended to solicit fetal tissue from the doctors, who discussed possible price points for various body organs gleaned from abortions.

Undercover techniques—including the use of hidden cameras and "manufactured identities" including false names, fake affiliation and even disguises—have long been utilized by investigative journalists.

In the case of the center's videos, it is unclear whether the Planned Parenthood officials were notified that they were being recorded. Under California Penal Code Section 632, "all parties to any confidential communication must give permission to be recorded, according to California's eavesdropping law."

"The statute, however, specifically excludes from its application any conversations made in public places, government proceedings, or in circumstances where the participants of the conversation could reasonably expect to be overheard or recorded."

The actions by the Center for Medical Progress are being investigated by California Attorney General, Kamala Harris. 

The center said in a July 30 statement that it "follows all applicable laws in the course of our investigative journalism work, and will contest all attempts from Planned Parenthood and their allies to silence our First Amendment rights and suppress investigative journalism."

The National Abortion Federation filed an injunction July 31 in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California against the center.

Planned Parenthood disputes what the videos show, saying they were severely edited to distort what the doctors being interviewed said to make it sound like they are selling baby parts for money. Planned Parenthood said its doctors are salvaging fetal tissue and organs for researchers and the talk of money was for customary handling fees to provide the parts to research labs. 

From a Catholic standpoint, the issue of undercover reporting points to several conflicting principles. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, suggests that those who lie -- including, it would seem, those who misrepresent themselves -- are in error.

"Lying is the most direct offense against the truth," the catechism states. (Paragraph 2483). Moreover, "by its very nature, lying is to be condemned." (Paragraph 2485)

At the same time, the catechism offers a further perspective with respect to communication and journalistic practices:

-- "The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity." (Paragraph 2494)

-- "By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals." (Paragraph 2497)

So how do the Center for Medical Progress reporters' actions connect with these teachings? Does their exposing of alleged wrongdoing connected with the practice of abortion -- the willful taking of life, as defined by the church -- trump their act of misrepresenting themselves? 

In other words, do the ends justify the means, especially if a greater good stands to benefit? Because that is not an argument the church accepts when researchers who utilize embryos and aborted fetal tissue insist that cures for deadly and disabling illnesses—such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease—could result from such research.

"I personally am in the camp that would condone the actions of the undercover investigators, but explaining why without using an 'ends-means' argument is difficult," said Vicki Evans, coordinator of the San Francisco Archdiocese's Respect Life Program.

"I would argue that they are bringing a corrupt institution to justice, in perhaps the only way possible, to save innocent lives—without a profit motive, with no personal benefit, and with full knowledge that they might be putting their futures in jeopardy."

Roberto Dell'Oro, director of the Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said that while it is always best to be above board in seeking the truth, there are instances when "a conscientious objection to morally unacceptable practices" can be justified.

"Throughout history, we have numerous examples of those who have lied or broken the law because they conscientiously objected to, and sought to expose, a deeper moral evil," he said, citing those who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. "And I don't see why this shouldn't be the case here."

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Crystal Watson
3 years 2 months ago
The comparison of the pro-life movement to those who stood against the Nazis isn't really the whole story about them. The pro-life movement has lied, has harassed pregnant women, and has murdered doctors. By targeting Planned Parenthood and trying to defund it, they run the risk of increasing the abortion rate rather than lessening it. I think the issue is more complicated than this post shows.
Crystal Watson
3 years 2 months ago
I should add that a good article on this issue of doing bad things for good reasons was "Bonhoeffer Was Wrong" by Raymond A. Schroth SJ
Bill Mazzella
3 years 2 months ago
Lying that you are harboring Jews or other refugees is quite different than enticing PP to "charge more" and that their "fee is too low." The body parts are donated at the direction of the family of the fetuses. People leave their bodies to science. The other underlying fact or problem is that the RCC has been callous in demanding that its women not practice birth control. It also blocks birth control from being given to underdeveloped countries who cannot afford to feed and give medical treatment to children under five.Who are dying at the rate of almost five million a year from lack of food and medicine. The Right to Life movement has incited murderers and now blatant liars. A sting operation is ok for good reason. PP is a legitimate family institution who, in the view of the majority in this country has done much good. We live in a pluralistic society. The culture animals are springing loose again. Even O'Malley and Cupick are calling for the defunding of PP. The solution is to tax and defund all the churches so that civility will return to the public forum. Ronald Reagan unleashed these beasts who represent the wrong side of Christianity when he said "I endorse you." The good news is that there is no threat of theocracy since all the religious leaders are fighting among themselves for power.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 2 months ago
Bill - I never knew you were such a strong supporter of the abortion establishment! It does explain a lot of the motivations behind your other posts. But, surely you would understand that donating one's own organs or those of one's kin who died in an accident for medical research is totally different from actively seeking to kill a family member and then donate their organs? But, it does seem that Hillary Clinton will follow Barack Obama in protecting PP and every form of abortion possible. God help those who vote for her.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 2 months ago
Tim, Glad you are able to know my motivations. Ex ore tuo, te judico.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 2 months ago
Having spent some time at Auschwitz-Birkenau this summer, where I saw how the Nazi's incorporated human hair and other parts of their victims' bodies into the economy, and who experimented with humans marked for extermination "for the sake of medical science," it seems appalling to see this injustice occur in the USA. But, it does show how capable human beings are of self-delusion and helps one understand how so many "ordinary" Germans and other Europeans could become complicit in this horror. As to the specific approach by the Center for Medical Progress, NBC's Dateline Pedophile Sting ("To Catch a Predator" has a lot of similarities, although the Pedophile Sting appears to have been done in private places - where the perp was not anticipating he would be on camera - and had a profit motive (TV ratings) rather than the sole desire to save lives. Since abortion is the ultimate form of child abuse and the selling of organs after killing the innocent a crime against humanity, I think the comparison with the WWII atrocities are apt. Planned Parenthood need to be fully exposed, abolished and outlawed.
Michael Hichborn
3 years 2 months ago
GREAT!!! Now that America believes that lies and deceptions are an unethical way to promote a particular agenda, perhaps America will now stop spreading lies about contraception, women's ordination, man-made global warming, homosexuality, and same-sex so-called "marriage."
Kevin Clarke
3 years 2 months ago

First of all, it's a Catholic News Service analysis, not an America editorial of any sort (I'm presuming you understand the difference); second, did you even read the article before you commented?

Crystal Watson
3 years 2 months ago
Polls show that about 50% of Catholics in the US are pro-choice. So you consider us all Nazis? How can there be any discussion with a bunch of Nazis? But I guess that's why no one here will actually discuss the issues but will only demonize those who believe differently.


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