Planned Parenthood Gets The ACORN Treatment

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.

11 thoughts on “Planned Parenthood Gets The ACORN Treatment

  1. Second, I agree with your analysis, but feel I must add to the PP defense. (Maybe not PP itself, but to the worker.) I’ve only read or seen what you’ve written here, but it would seem to me that two things need to be considered about the worker’s situation.

    1) Did the worker’s advice apply to the of age prostitute in front of her the same as it did to the hypothetically stated underage girls? As soon as she hears that there might be underage girls who might use her advice, can she no longer consult with the of age woman that has presented herself in person? Did the worker provide unique advice for the underage girls separately?

    2) Did the worker feel bullied or in danger from “The Pimp”. Did she feel compelled to stick with the discussion because of fear that the pimp might hurt her should she become uncooperative? Did she want to keep relations open with the pimp so that when she made her call to the police later, she would have as much information as possible and the potential to get the pimp back through the doors for a sting operation?

    Without knowing some of the facts around these areas, I think this worker should not be condemned or disciplined.

    • You are right. The incomplete video makes it hard to tell. In the Post story, a section I didn’t mention, leaving it to readers who clicked on the previously bad link to find, is that the tape did seem to show the PP employee telling the pimp to tell the 14-year old prostitutes to lie about their ages. That’s on the tape, and clearly is wrong.

  2. I saw the partial video.

    It may not be complete but much of what the worker says and does make you wonder. She was not under duress and she offered up information freely. She even suggested they go to a clinic which was known to not “ask questions.”

    The edit may be done craftily to paint the worst possible light, but the bulb was already bright enough to make you worry.

    And are you really going to nitpick over editing? It is a common practice. Does it make it right? No, but it gives them a leg to stand on in the world of “gotcha news.” Imagine what Michael Moore would be taping without this type of tactic. The man would still be a nobody.

    • Well, ethically, it’s no nit, is it? Don’t you think the Sherrod incident shows why we can’t trust edited video? If, as lawyers say, the video is res ipsa loquitur, then why edit it?

      • I’m a fan of editing to get your point across, but if you do that, you need to make available the full raw footage. The edited video can serve the purpose of highlighting what you are objecting to and getting straight to the point. You then provide the full video so the viewer can get the proper context. However, I’m sure that’s not what happens and the current implementation is dubious.

      • I don’t think it is ethical or right. I’m merely stating with the current way news and video is presented, what they did was “correct.”

  3. Last week Planned Parenthood notified the Justice Department about various “pimps” popping into their facilities claiming to want services for underage and illegal sex workers. They have fired the employee in the video. So far so good, as ethics go. I have no problem with sting operations, but the editing is troubling and only the raw video should be considered when judging the situation.

    My problem is that they say there are more videos out there. If this turns out to be true, then Planned Parenthood has a big problem, which is too bad because they do provide a lot of other services to women besides abortion. I know, because I have taken advantage of them, as have my daughters and friends. I am going to wait and watch, and if this seems to be a pattern it will definitely force me to reevaluate my position on PP.

  4. Now there is also a video of a sting in a Virginia Planned Parenthood from Live Action. This one is nearly the same except the woman they meet admits to helping children bypass the law. In Virginia, parents have to be notified of abortions if the child is under 18.

    One video like this may be a fluke. Two is probably not a fluke, especially after all the news coverage the previous video received. The woman in the first video was fired the same day the video came out. This new video is a day after.

    The new video if anyone would like to see it.

    • There is nothing illegal about judicial bypass. It is a legal procedure done if the woman does not want to seek parental permission. I don’t see that the PP worker here did anything wrong in the VA case. Why would PP have gone to the Justice Department if they have a policy of covering up underage sex trafficking? So far, the New Jersey case seems to be an isolated incident.

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