Pro-life group's video stings spark ethical debate

Live Action Undercover at Planned Parenthood CNA US Catholic News 2 11 11

The pro-life group Live Action has an indisputably Christian goal in mind, as it aims to defund and expose Planned Parenthood. But the group's use of “sting” operations, in which abortion clinic workers are caught agreeing to break the law, is causing controversy among leading moral theologians in the U.S.

Since Feb. 1, the group has been releasing video footage showing interaction between employees of Planned Parenthood, and undercover actors from Live Action. The actors, claiming to be a pimp and a prostitute, ask the employees how they can secure a number of services – including abortion, birth control, and STD testing – for a stable of underage immigrant sex workers they claim to manage. Sex trafficking is a federal crime, as is providing assistance to those engaged in it.

Live Action's ongoing exposé has already dealt a blow to the abortion provider's reputation. Planned Parenthood announced on Feb. 8 that it would be re-training its entire U.S. staff and instituting new disciplinary procedures. Attorneys general in Virginia and New Jersey are looking into the organization's treatment of young girls. The tapes could also help an ongoing effort in Congress to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding.

Germain Grisez, who was a professor of Christian ethics from 1979 to 2009 at Mount Saint Mary's University in Maryland, would hardly be among those seeking to criticize Live Action's pro-life goals. His multi-volume series “The Way of the Lord Jesus” contains some of the twentieth century's most articulate and thoughtful explanations and defenses of Catholic teaching on subjects such as abortion, contraception, and chastity.

What Grisez does not approve of, however, is Live Action's methodology – the means it is using, to achieve an end he himself supports.

“Catholics should regard such activity as morally and legally unacceptable,” he told CNA in a written statement on Feb. 11.

“From a moral point of view, I would call it scandal in the strict sense – that is, leading another to commit a sin. From a legal point of view, I would call it suborning agreement to cooperate in criminal activities.”

Tempting someone with an opportunity to commit a crime, Grisez pointed out, also involves “deception and lying.”

The authoritative second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – which Grisez was involved in revising, under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI – unequivocally says that lying is “the most direct offense against the truth.” It goes on to state that “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

Although an earlier edition of the Catechism appeared to make allowances for lying in some circumstances, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – led by the future Pope – took a harder line when revising the original Latin text to its present form.

The absolute prohibition in the Catechism follows the teaching of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, which was originally codified in the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Proponents would argue that this teaching also follows the words of Jesus, who states in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.' Anything more is from the evil one.”

Professor William May, another moral theologian who was involved in revising the Catechism along with Grizez, concurred with his condemnation of Live Action's tactics in an interview with CNA.

To employ lies in exposing evil, Professor May said, is the kind of activity that St. Paul condemned when he wrote that Christians must not “do evil that good may come of it.” More recently, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed in the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” that no unethical action can be justified on the basis of good intentions or results.

However, May explained that Catholics can, in good conscience, strategically withhold significant or sensitive information in certain settings. They may also legitimately have recourse to the technique known as “mental reservation,” which involves the use of a statement that can be taken in two different ways.

By these criteria, Live Action's actors could have employed statements that were technically true: for instance, by saying they were involved in “sex work” and meaning chastity education; or by saying they “knew some young girls” – who were in fact merely their younger siblings – and asking about what could be done “if they got pregnant” by an older person.

Through the careful use of ambiguous statements, Live Action might have invited Planned Parenthood employees to disclose sensitive information about hypothetical scenarios, without actually lying. Moral theologians and Church authorities have consistently distinguished these types of mental reservation from outright lies.

Like Professors Grisez and May, Dr. Christopher Kaczor – a Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University – has written extensively about ethics and the natural law from a Catholic standpoint. Like Prof. May, he believes Live Action would have been in a more readily defensible position if it had employed a careful strategy of mental reservation – rather than outright lying – in approaching Planned Parenthood.

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But Kaczor expressed strong reservations about lines of argumentation that would forbid Live Action's work because of its use of lies.

These arguments, Kaczor wrote in a Feb. 11 piece for the Public Discourse online journal, “would seem to prove too much.” He was responding to a Feb. 9 piece by Christopher Tollefsen, another philosopher who claimed that Live Action's ends did not justify the means of lying.

Tollefsen's criteria, Kaczor said, would exclude most undercover police operations, investigative journalism involving a pretense, infiltrations of terrorist networks, and espionage work on behalf of intelligence agencies.

“It could be that morality demands an end to all such activities,” Kaczor acknowledged. “But it seems more likely that such activities are ethically permissible for serious reasons.” By the same standards, he said, Live Action's strategies might also be justified.

Speaking to CNA on Feb. 10, Live Action's President Lila Rose acknowledged the seriousness of the ethical concerns raised by her fellow Catholics. But she urged them to consider Planned Parenthood's role in the deaths of millions of children, and how this extraordinary reality might inform or change activists' moral obligations.

While Rose and her group are strongly opposed to violence against abortionists, she did compare the current situation to a “just war,” in which things may be done that could not be in a time of peace.

“During times of war, espionage does take place,” Rose pointed out. “Is it time, in our country, for us to use undercover work as a tactic to fight? I would say, and I think many Catholics would say, 'absolutely'.”

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To some Catholics, her rationale may sound similar to “situation ethics” – which holds that the concrete particulars of a situation can alter what is right or wrong. Rose also acknowledged that the analogy – between war on the one hand, and a moral and legal struggle on the other – was not a perfect comparison.

Rose also believes there is precedent for her work in the case of some Catholics who lied to save Jews during World War II, or priests who assumed a false identity in order to minister under communist regimes.

Additionally, as Dr. Kaczor has pointed out in his essay, at least two of the Fathers of the Church – St. John Chrysostom in his book “On the Priesthood,” and St. John Cassian in his “Conferences” – defended the use of lying to save an innocent person.

Such a difficult question, coming in response to the reality of abortion, may continue to divide those who are otherwise firmly allied in their defense of unborn life.

The question is unlikely to be resolved to anyone's complete satisfaction in the near future. However, Rose said she intends to provide CNA with a longer position statement explaining her group's perspective on the morality of its work.