The Planned Parenthood Videos: Is It Wrong to ‘Lie’ to Abortionists?
No one can deny the explosive impact of the Planned Parenthood videos painstakingly obtained over three years of undercover reporting by the Center for Medical Progress. A GOP that had shoved the abortion issue to the political back burner has suddenly seen it boiling over, with major Republican candidates (such as Marco Rubio) now speaking loudly about the “barbarism” of “murdering babies.”
As Jason Jones and I wrote here last week, if you tune out the Trump-induced static at the last Republican debate, you will hear one message loud and clear: The Republican party has committed itself to advancing protection for unborn children, to extending legal rights to one class after another of vulnerable unborn Americans as it becomes politically feasible, and slashing the funding of the organ-profiteering eugenics organization Planned Parenthood that targets the urban, black poor for abortions. The only openly pro-choice Republican candidate, George Pataki, barely registers in the polls. Donald Trump has been forced to claim a pro-life “conversion,” though he wants to use cheap accounting tricks to keep on subsidizing inner-city abortions, earning him the sobriquet “Planned Parenthood’s favorite Republican.”
You can read on left-wing sites like The Daily Beast anguished testimonies such as “I Don’t Know if I’m Pro-Choice After Planned Parenthood Videos.” You can see fear begin to edge out the arrogance on the face of pro-abortion candidates such as Hillary Clinton, as they double down on their support for Planned Parenthood, and refuse to watch the videos.
What’s the last thing you’d expect right now? That putative pro-lifers would start condemning all this evidence of moral advancement, claiming that the Center for Medical Progress used evil means to uncover the truth about Planned Parenthood — so evil that Christians should denounce the CMP for employing them, so sinister that these videos themselves will backfire and discredit the pro-life movement. Because, you see, the CMP’s investigators told Planned Parenthood employees things that weren’t true. And that is evil. By this logic, the Planned Parenthood videos are the fruit of a poison tree, and should not even be made public or shared. Like Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s experimental results, or sins we overheard in someone else’s confession, we should shun them and keep them secret.
Catholic writer Mark Shea is leading the charge against Planned Parenthood’s critics. On July 21, Shea condemned the Center for Medical Progress in an online Catholic radio broadcast, where he also said that families sheltering Jews during the Holocaust would have sinned by deceiving the Nazis who hunted those Jews. At 35:30 he quipped, “The issue is not and never has been figuring out how to lie well; the issue is figuring out how to hide your Jews well.” Then he chortled heartily.
Curiously, Shea has no previous track record of condemning the use of deception by police trapping pedophiles, CIA operatives fighting terrorism, or animal rights activists infiltrating factory farms. But over several years, Shea has spilled tens of thousands of words denouncing pro-life investigative reporters who infiltrated Planned Parenthood, even alleging that these pro-lifers had endangered their immortal souls by “tempting” professional abortionists into sin. You see, the prolife investigators of Live Action, including Lila Rose, showed up at abortion clinics and made fake appointments, trying to see if the clinics were willing to violate relevant laws. According to Shea, Rose was playing the evil temptress by doing that, urging someone to sin … because they intended to give her an abortion, so they sinned as gravely as a murderer who shoots but misses. She “tempted” them to do that, so she is just as guilty. Really?
Clearly Shea doesn’t understand the difference between entrapment and legitimate undercover work. If someone is already in the business of habitual acts of evil, presenting him an opportunity to express that fixed intention in order to stop him is not considered entrapment under law. Nor is it a sin. By Shea’s logic, if a sniper were picking off pedestrians, police who shoved out a mannequin to draw away his fire would be “tempting” him to murder, since he intended to shoot a real person. To say that such policemen were guilty of “incitement to murder” would not just be false; it would be slander.
Such absurdities aside, let’s examine the question that deserves our serious scrutiny, which is echoed by serious thinkers, such as philosopher Christopher Tollefsen: To win the trust of the abortionists and obtain the video evidence of their human organ trafficking, the investigators from the Center for Medical Progress “lied.” And that’s always evil.
Or is it? Not every killing is murder. Is every verbal deception a sinful “lie”? That’s the only real question here, and it’s one that has vexed Christian thinkers since almost the beginning. There isn’t space here to review 2,000 years of theological debate, and in any case we can’t resolve this natural law question that bears on public policy affecting non-Christians as well as Christians by an easy appeal to authority. We must each use our reason to consider this question seriously and come to honest conclusions whose implications we’re willing to live with. An argument that yields ludicrous conclusions has got a flaw in it somewhere, usually way back in its unexamined premises.
Means and Ends
Any principled person will admit that the end does not justify the means. Not if the means is something intrinsically, that is, under every imaginable circumstance and by its very nature, evil. To clarify the point, let’s choose an extreme example. If it would have beaten Hitler sooner and stopped the Holocaust, should the Allies have been willing to recruit French and Belgian children as suicide bombers? No, because using children as weapons of war is evil, the same kind of evil as the Nazis were committing. You can’t use a “little” bit of real evil to fight for the good, a point which lay at the heart of The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring could serve as an allegory of any truly evil means, which corrupts the user. Some argue that Allied bombings of Axis cities from Dresden to Nagasaki was an intrinsically evil means, since it targeted civilians. In fact, I agree.
But the end can reveal an error in the chosen means. Keeping your hands clean and your conscience perfectly shiny is no excuse for letting the real world go to hell, or allowing the vulnerable to suffer at the hands of the utterly ruthless. When Gandhi advised Europe’s Jews (and also the Allies) to resist the Nazis by exclusively non-violent means, he played the role of a callous purist — as George Orwell pointed out.
While an individual choice for non-violence might be noble, universal pacifism is not merely quixotic and self-indulgent. It is actively sinful. It empowers the killers, thugs and rapists of this fallen world by disarming the forces of justice. When only your personal pride or even well-being is at stake, it can be right to turn the other cheek. But when the lives of others are involved, that amounts to reckless cowardice empowered by moralistic preening. So, I will argue, does refusing to fool the guilty in order to save the innocent — a stance I’ll call “verbal pacifism.”
The Bad Effects of Verbal Pacifism
Here are just a few of the implications of verbal pacifism. On that theory, the following activities would be intrinsically evil, just like using child suicide bombers against the Nazis — and it would be better to die, and let millions of others be tortured, raped or killed, rather than engage in them. In fact, doing any one of them would be a sin sufficient to damn one’s soul to hell:
- Deceiving the Pharaoh who wished to kill all the newborn male Hebrews — as the midwives did in Exodus 1:15-21. (The Bible tells us that “God dealt well with the midwives.”)
- Deceiving priest-hunters by using assumed names, as Jesuit missionaries did when they ministered in Reformation England, and St. Miguel Pro did in Mexico in the 1920s.
- Deceiving the Nazis to rescue Jews from the gas chambers, as Oskar Schindler did.
- Distributing false baptismal certificates so that Jews could pass as Gentiles and escape extermination, as John XXIII did during World War II.
- Using false documents and false statements in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, like the conspirators working with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who were aided by Pope Pius XII (who passed their messages via Vatican couriers).
- Deceiving the brutal dictators who hoped to hunt down and torture leftist priests, as Pope Francis did while serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
- Posing as a child in online forums in order to catch child porn distributors and pedophiles, as police routinely do — having found it the only effective means of capturing such predators.
- Pretending to be an Islamist, in order to infiltrate terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS, as CIA operatives do.
- Misleading criminal suspects about the evidence you have, as police do to obtain truthful confessions without coercion.
- Infiltrating an abortion business like Planned Parenthood to see if they are breaking laws about statutory rape and organ trafficking, as Live Action and the Center for Medical Progress did.
Any moral philosophy that claims that all these activities are intrinsically evil has got some explaining to do. By insisting on premises that yield such repugnant conclusions, and claiming that the only alternative is a crass and unprincipled pragmatism, verbal pacifists are cutting off their nose to spite their face.
Where the Great Augustine Went Wrong
Verbal pacifists’ profound confusion can be traced to one of the greatest writers and thinkers in history, St. Augustine, who wrote in De Mendacio that it would be wrong to deceive murderers at your door who asked about their hoped-for victim within. (Augustine found falsehood especially repulsive because it played such a major role in his previous life as a pagan, when he worked as a rhetorician, by his own admission flattering and lying for hire.) Augustine was not a physical pacifist, however, just a verbal one. While he wouldn’t allow you to lie to these would-be killers, if they tried to force their way in, you might be justified in killing them. Thomas Aquinas agreed; he likewise condemned all deception, but allowed for defensive wars, and even the use of torture on Christian “heretics.”
How can we make sense of such a position, which sees physical violence as almost morally neutral — its merits depend on the situation at hand — but verbal falsehood as evil beyond excusing? Moral philosopher Janet Smith has done the heavy lifting here. In a brilliant article for First Things provoked by Mark Shea’s relentless campaign against pro-life activists, she critiqued the fundamental premise of the Augustinian tradition: That human speech was created exclusively for speaking the truth, and we sinfully pervert it by using it deceptively, in however worthy a cause.
As Smith writes, that claim is correct as far as it goes. Just so, human hands were not made to kill or fight with other men, but to till the Garden of Eden. However, given the Fall, God permits us and even commands us to use our bodies in new ways that would have been unnecessary and wrong in an unfallen world: Thus Christian soldiers and policemen can use deadly force when needed in defense of the innocent. Why should our words be held to such a radically different standard than our bodies?
At this point in the argument, someone is bound to start misquoting scripture, pointing to the fact that Christ is called “the Word,” and suggesting that what we say is morally more significant than what we do, since it reflects our inner selves more purely or perfectly or something. That is gnostic balderdash. Christ saved us not by what He said but by what He did. On the cross. With His body.
In the early Church, non-Christians were invited to attend the liturgy long enough to hear the Gospel — but then ushered out before the sacrifice of His sacred body and blood. Even today, we let the unbaptized read the Bible, but not partake in Communion. And so on. It is frankly bizarre to treat words, made by man, as more significant than bodies that took life from God.
Just so, CMP’s words, spoken to professional killers who have no right to expect the truth, were nothing sacred. What was sacred were the lives of those tiny, helpless humans whom Planned Parenthood sells like scrap metal or chicken parts. We must choose our words very carefully in such innocent children’s defense. We will each someday be called to answer for what we did or didn’t do to help “the least” among us.