Taking its inspiration from James O’Keefe’s infamous ACORN stunt, and anti-abortion group called Live Action videotaped actors as they asked Planned Parenthood staff at a New Jersey clinic for advice while disguised as a pimp and one of his prostitutes. Sure enough, just like in the incident that helped destroy ACORN, the eager-to-please Planned Parenthood staff member cooperated, advising the couple how to get abortions and other services for the “pimp’s” prostitutes, some of them described as illegal immigrants and girls as young as 14.
The episode raises several ethical issues:
Videotaped stings generally. Is it ethical to misrepresent oneself and videotape the encounter?
By absolutist and reciprocity standards, it is not. Obviously, the fake identities and phony situation is a lie, indeed many lies. It was unfair, and was inherently disrespectful of privacy. Surreptitious videotaping of another with the intent to show it to others and perhaps put it on YouTube, is doing real harm to another by the use of deception and stealth.
Yet such fake encounters have many uses that society tolerates and even encourages. We even accept such activities for entertainment value, as with all the hidden camera shows. (A key difference: in these shows, the subject must consent to having the video shown.) Behavioral scientists also perform such deceptions in the interest of acquiring knowledge. Most common of all are intentional deceptions designed by law enforcement officials to prove unlawful conduct, videotaped “stings” that uncover official corruption and discriminatory practices. Sometimes these stings are initiated by citizens, and while they may not be admissible in court, they are often used to spark official investigations.
Thus the ethical nature of this kind of misrepresentation must rely on a utilitarian rationale. If the objective is sufficiently virtuous, and it is reasonable to believe that genuine misconduct and harm may be prevented, then the inherent dishonesty of the sting may be out-balanced by the sting’s anticipated benefits. It is important to make the distinction that so-called “fishing expeditions,” in which someone is “stung” in a general effort to see if something, anything, damaging turns up, are not made ethical because they happen to uncover wrongdoing. The ethical nature of any sting must be measured at the beginning, not after all the results are in; to do otherwise is consequentialism, the retroactive validation of unethical conduct.
The Live Action sting. Was it ethical?
It is difficult to determine for certain, but probably not. If Live Action had previous information that Planned Parenthood was routinely and knowingly aiding and abetting prostitution rings by providing abortion information to pimps and prostitutes and withholding the information from authorities, then its deception might be ethically defensible. In the actual incident, however, the Planned Parenthood staff member who advised the actors later called the police and reported the possibility of a sex ring operating in the area, so this seems unlikely.
Live Action’s interest isn’t prostitution prevention; it is abortion. The perceived wrongdoing it was trying to stop through this hidden camera masquerade is legal abortions. The sting, however, wasn’t designed to prove that Planned Parenthood assists women seeking abortions; everyone knows that this is occurring. The Live Action’s stated objective is to cripple Planned Parenthood’s ability to do this by embarrassing the organization. The deception, therefore, was a “fishing expedition.” The fact that it caught a big fish can’t justify it. This was an effort to do harm to a legal organization, using deceptive means. Unethical.
The videotape. Ethical? No. According to Planned Parenthood and the Washington Post, the videotape presented by Live Action was “heavily edited”, just like O’Keefe’s video. This is per se unethical. Even if what is shown on the video is unequivocally objectionable, editing out anything in the sequence of events raises a presumption that the video would be less damning if everything was viewable. What was edited out and why? Are there example of mitigating behavior by the Planned Parenthood staff that can’t be seen? Were there misrepresentations by the actors other than those recorded? 2010 showed us how damaging and misleading edited videos could be, notable in the Breitbart editing of the Shirley Sherrod speech. The least we can demand from the videotape of a citizen sting is a complete recording, unedited, of the entire encounter, beginning to end. Anything else is unfair, and presumptively misleading.
Live Action vs. O’Keefe. How can the Planned Parenthood sting be unethical if the ACORN sting was ethical? The ACORN sting wasn’t ethical. But at least O’Keefe was seeking evidence of specific unquestionably illegal and unethical conduct by ACORN employees: advising on how to commit fraud. It isn’t illegal to advise a prostitute on how to get a legal abortion; it is just distasteful. Live Action’s sting was a fishing expedition, and O’Keefe’s was not, but both produced edited videos to make their targets look as bad as possible. Both were unethical; Live Action was more unethical.
Planned Parenthood’s staff conduct. Was it ethical? Is it ethical to give advice to a pimp about how to get abortions for his 14-year-old prostitutes, among others? Of course not. Giving advice to a prostitute about abortions is legal and arguably ethical, but facilitating child abuse, statutory rape and the corruption of a minor is a breach of multiple ethical duties.
Consequences. Is it fair for Planned Parenthood to suffer harm to its reputation and damage to its mission because of this incident? Planned Parenthood is accountable for the conduct of its staff, regardless of how it comes to light. This means that to some extent an unethical plan to discredit the organization by an ideological foe is successful. As with the ACORN incident, however, the public cannot ignore misconduct simply because it is revealed by deception. Planned Parenthood will be judged according to how it responds to the New Jersey sting and its results, and that is entirely appropriate.