Of Lila Rose, Abby Johnson, and Westboro Baptist

OK, there’s an interesting debate raging in Catholic circles over the tactics used by Lila Rose’s “Live Action” group to expose the various evils of Planned Parenthood by use of “undercover sting operations.” I’ve been reading some of the recent debate, and participating in it, and I have some thoughts, but it’s interesting how it ties into this week’s readings and some other items in the news.

The debate actually started over a year and a half ago. My friend Joe Hargrave was the first to raise the issue in his post “My Problem with Lila Rose” on _The American Catholic_.

My first problem is that lying is a sin. On the scale of things, what Planned Parenthood does to innocent unborn children is worse – far worse – than what Lila Rose does to Planned Parenthood. But that does not make what Lila Rose does morally acceptable. And it is all the more relevant for us since Lila Rose has recently joined the Catholic Church!

At first, Joe was just broaching the question. He asked, mostly rhetorically, if it was at all possible to argue from the context of Catholic morality that what Lila Rose is doing is intrinsically disordered. More importantly, he expressed surprise that no one had mentioned this question at all, even Archbishop Charles Chaput!

He also pointed out that he wasn’t sure Lila Rose’s work was doing that much good:

For instance, I do not believe that the nervous responses of low-level flunkies, or even high level representatives on the telephone can honestly be used to indicate a national conspiracy of racism and endorsement of statutory rape. Attempts to link such responses to the racist philosophy of Margaret Sanger, as if everyone who works at a Planned Parenthood is a willing and conscious participant in a racist conspiracy, only count as more deception in my eyes (I think they just wanted the promised donation).

These are usually clear cases of entrapment, which goes beyond undercover work (which I am still not clear on) and crosses over into something I find highly immoral when the police do it, and even worse when someone claiming to be a Catholic Christian does it.

In the end I believe the truth of abortion is more powerful than the efforts of Planned Parenthood and other institutions involved in providing and propagandizing for abortion to suppress that truth. Let us support courageous men like the Reverend Walter Hoye, who have gone to jail for telling the truth to women, informing them that there are alternatives to abortion and people who care enough about them to help them make use of them. Or the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, which tours college campuses with large displays of aborted fetuses and engages in lively debate with the students who come by.

Lately, Lila Rose has been getting a *lot* of press, particularly about her exposes on Planned Parenthood covering up child prostitution and nasty stuff like that. For these exposes, her “actors” went in pretending to be pimps, prostitutes, child sex slave merchants, etc.

A few weeks ago, New Theological Movement posted a blog on the topic, arguing that it’s always a sin to lie, period.

Someone asked Mark Shea for his opinion. This is where things got interesting. First, Mark’s position was rather nuanced, and right along the lines where I thought to begin with and do now, having gone the rounds on the subject:

I hate to say it, because my loathing for Murder Inc. is so deep, but I basically tend to agree that it is wrong to take even a butcher down with lies.

That said, I wonder if some moral theologian could make a reasonable (as distinct from sophistical) case for videos like these under the same sort of logic that allows for feints, ruses and similar strategems in Just War theory.

He said there *might* be a case, but he hasn’t seen it.

So, so far, what we have is a few people asking a very legitimate question about Catholic moral teaching. No one has condemned Lila Rose, judged her soul, called her evil, expressed “outrage” or anything. People are just asking honest questions about how this tactic can be reconciled with Catholic moral teaching expressed in the Catechism.

Before I continue, this is where Westboro Baptist comes into play. This weekend, an “Open Letter” came out in which the cyberterrorist group “Anonymous” supposedly threatened Westboro Baptist Church. They threatened to bombard WBC’s web servers, email addresses, members, etc., with “denial of service” attacks and such. Then WBC issued some response to the effect of “bring it on.” You may know that Westboro Baptist is that crazy group who picket funerals and carry signs like “God Hates …” The media usually emphasize their anti-gay positions, but they apparently are anti-war, as well, as they frequently picket military funerals.

People seem to agree that WBC’s tactics are repulsive, but it’s hard to see why they’re repulsive and PETA’s tactics aren’t. And WBC, while obnoxious, isn’t really hurting anyone, versus some of the things PETA and “gay rights” groups do to people, and what Anonymous itself–a hacker terrorist group that attacks the web-based services of groups it disagrees with–does.

In any case, Anonymous is now claiming the whole thing is a hoax arranged by WBC.

The whole thing raises the point that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, that we should not return evil for evil. Thinking homosexual acts are wrong is not the same thing as hating people who suffer from Same Sex Attraction. Saying “God hates fags” is not the same thing as saying “I love and pray for homosexuals and hope they convert” (though some people think it is). Agreeing with Family Research Council about the dangers of the homosexualist agenda to our culture and trying to fight that agenda does not require the picketing of funerals or violent rhetoric of WBC. Similarly, I’d hope that even those who hate WBC’s beliefs and tactics alike would not support cyberterrorism.

So, it’s a relevant debate. I’m sure many of those supporting Lila Rose unconditionally would balk at the comparison of Lila Rose to the Topeka, KS, based group led by “Rev.” Fred Phelps. Yet Phelps is doing an intrinsic evil to fight an intrinsic evil. I’m not even sure if holding up nasty signs in and of itself constitutes intrinsic evil. Yet most people consider Phelps’ actions to be offensive and wrong.

That gets to Peter Kreeft’s rather puzzling defense of Lila Rose. On Friday, Kreeft post ed what he admitted were cursory thoughts on the subject. This is where things get puzzling. I have a lot of respect for Kreeft, but this article had me seriously wondering if old age is getting to him. This article doesn’t sound like Kreeft, in style or theme. We’re talking about a guy who usually writes that Catholics should have the fervor of faith and virtue of Muslims (though I also recently learned how he was trounced in a very public debate on this subject relatively recently).

Yet here he’s arguing, basically, that Lila Rose’s actions are right because the consensus is that they’re right–so morality can be decided by vote? And he’s arguing basic consequentialism: it’s right because she’s fighting a greater evil. Yet the whole point of the Church defining something as intrinsic evil is that it’s always wrong to do it, even if it’s for a good cause.

Someone named Gerard Nadal, whose name rings a bell but I don’t really know what he’s famous for, chimed in with a similar piece.

Nadal actually makes some good points, but he’s really the one who’s stoked the fires. The very title of his piece is: “The Lila Enigma: Selective Outrage?” Nadal begins by talking about “outrage” against Lila Rose, of which, as I have documented, there is none. So far, all that we’ve had are some people raising their hands and saying, “Excuse me, but isn’t this intrinsically evil? I’d like to approve of what she’s doing, but how’s this OK?”

This is taken as “outrage”. All of a sudden, people are “condemning” Lila Rose! “How dare they attack Lila Rose when there are so many babies getting killed!” You can see how this has gone downhill quickly. Nadal basically argues that we shouldn’t be talking about it at all.

In an earlier piece, Nadal says he doesn’t want to “fan the flames,” yet he excoriates the heroic virtue of approach of “I’d never lie” and he uses all the rhetoric of “the horrors Lila Rose is exposing are so evil that it’s stupid to question what she’s doing.”

Then as the controversy got bigger, Mark Shea wrote another post, responding to some of the main arguments.

I urge you, if you have a stake in this issue, and have any interest in sincerely studying it, to at least read the link I just posted. Shea does a good job of refuting many of the arguments that have been raised, but people still keep making them.
For example, any comparison to war doesn’t count, since this isn’t a war. Comparisons to under cover cops don’t count because Lila Rose is not an undercover cop.

We can ask about undercover investigative journalists, but that will get into the debate about what constitutes an undercover investigative journalist or consumer rights advocate. Even then, Shea points out that Lila Rose has no authorization from on high: she claims to be representing the women who’ve been to abortion clinics, but does she have some signed legal authorization?

I’m not going to rehash all of Shea’s arguments here, but he does a great job, and it shows how disingenuous many people are being on this topic that they are not acknowledging Shea’s arguments at all. They’re merely attacking him with ad hominems, repeating the same arguments he refutes, etc. I’ve been thoroughly debating the topic on various Facebook threads today, and finding the same kinds of rhetoric used in the debates on torture and other subjects recently. I’ve been told I don’t have a nuanced understand of Catholic moral teaching, that I need to reread the “obvious” words of the Catechism (I thought it was pretty obvious: ‘Lying is always to be condemned’), that I have an ill formed conscience, that I’m a danger to the Church, that I have no right to talk because I’m not “on the front lines,” etc.

It’s tiresome to see the bad will being shown by people who claim to be pro-life, who say “what Lila Rose is doing is saving lives,” yet if you say, “Well, then is it OK to shoot abortionists?” they get mad and say that’s “crossing the line.”

And they keep misrepresenting what people are saying. For example, Mark Shea points out:

First, isn’t it interesting how things that appear to be “elementary” moral teaching (“Don’t lie”) suddenly get complex when it’s Us and not Them who are pondering the problem. Case in point, not long ago we were all being told how peculiarly immoral Muslims were for their concept of Taqiyya or lying in defense of some sacred truth and how almost inhumanly different these barbarians are from us good Christian folk. Now we are rediscovering once again the ancient problem (common to all the great ethical monotheistic traditions) of trying to square the plain words against lying with the real world problem of how to speak the truth in a world that can visit horrendous punishment on honest people and their loved ones. Remember this discussion that next time you are tempted to harshly judge some Muslim who thinks you can lie in a good cause. We’re not so very different after all.

Second, please remember that the question I have been trying to treat is simply and solely the morality of lying in a good cause, not the question of whether Lila Rose, undercover cops, spies, wartime strategists, and husbands who don’t give forthcoming answers to “Does this dress make me look fat?” are going to hell. I take it for granted that a) there are all sorts of levels of gravity and culpability in lying and that the overwhelming number of lies we tell are fibs and white lies, not huge and grave ones.

Third, I’m still thinking this one through and I’m not entirely happy. But I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that lying is, in fact, intrinsically immoral given that the Church says it is (CCC 2485 “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”) The whole point of having a Magisterium is not that it is right where we are right, but that it is right where we are wrong. “By its very nature” means what it means, whether I like it or not.

Yet people still insist he’s “condemning” Lila Rose, even though he says he’s not. They insist on pointing to the example of undercover cops, even though he’s saying “that’s not even the question yet.”

The questions are:
1) Is it ever OK to lie for a good cause? The Church says it’s wrong to lie for a bad cause. Maybe it’s OK to lie for a good cause? Probably not, but can anyone make the argument?
2) Is what Lila Rose is doing lying?
3) Does Lila Rose have any kind of authorization, the way a cop or journalist does, to go into Planned Parenthood under false pretenses and ask questions and make recordings?
4) What constitutes a journalist in our day and age?

People could be grappling with these important questions, but instead they’re calling each other names and saying the topic is a distraction from the “real evil” of Planned Parenthood.

Yet I’m sure if we were talking about Westboro Baptist, and not Lila Rose, people wouldn’t say that condemnation of Westboro Baptist is a distraction from the “real evil” of the homosexualist movement. The two are not mutually exclusive, as Shea says above.

Now, that gets us to the third item in the list: Abby Johnson.

Let’s look at what Lila Rose has done. She and her compatriots have made phone calls to Planned Parenthood, or gone into PP “Clinics” in costume. Sometimes, they’ve just asked questions. Sometimes, they’ve presented themselves as pregnant women, or prostitutes, or pimps or whatever. Sometimes, they’ve called up and said things like, “I’d like to give money to Planned Parenthood to pay for black abortions because I don’t like black people.” Some of this, as Hargrave pointed out in his original piece in 2009, constitutes not just lying but entrapment. Since entrapment is wrong for an undercover cop, the “what about undercover cops” argument doesn’t hold water on those examples.

Lila Rose’s videos and recordings have exposed some horrible truths about Planned Parenthood. These are things that have been long talked about by people who’ve *left* Planned Parenthood, and that’s where Abby Johnson comes in.

Abby Johnson is the former Planned Parenthood clinic director who converted practically overnight and is now not only pro-life but a Catholic and has published a book on her experiences through Ignatius Press.

We know how the Left is about evidence. “The Swift Boat people were thoroughly discredited.” I’ve never seen anything that discredits the claims of the “Swifties” about John Kerry. I did hear Rush Limbaugh play recordings of Kerry speaking and telling conflicting stories about his Vietnam record. I did hear Rush Limbaugh read pages out of Kerry’s memoirs or clips of Kerry’s speeches where he made claims about things in Vietnam that were historically impossible (like talking about Nixon as president when Johnson was president). Yet if you look at Huffington Post and stuff, they say “the Swift Boat vets were discredited.”

So, too, there apparently is some secret message circulated among Pro-abortionists that shows how Jill Stanek is a liar. They apparently have all sorts of evidence that discredits every former abortionist, abortion nurse, clinic director, high level Planned Parenthood executive or pro-abortion activist who has converted and told stories about what really goes on at “clinics.” In spite of Kremit Gosnell and so many others, they still insist abortionists are great humanitarians.

See where I’m going? First, people will believe whatever they want. We have first hand testimony from real people who’ve worked at abortuaries, and yet their testimony is discredited. Supposedly, the importance of Live Action’s work is that the group is providing recordings to document the truth. Yet the recordings so often come close to, and cross the line of, entrapment that the mainstream media, the liberals, and perhaps the average person just take the view that they’re not accurate in representing what really goes on at Planned Parenthood.

I’d like to say that Live Action’s work is exciting, that it’s doing great things for the pro-life movement, and somewhat it is. But it’s also opening an inherent flaw, that it makes us all look like deceptive liars. If Lila Rose is a liar, then is the rest of our evidence lies? The Left already has people convinced that Jill Stanek and Gianna Jessen and others are liars. Our president even called Gianna Jessen a liar. Lila Rose *is* lying to obtain this information then expecting us to believe her about the information.

Isn’t that the very evil of lying? That you can never tell if a dishonest person is telling the truth?

Jesus says so many things on this topic, such as “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” This week’s Gospel is the “turn the other cheek” Gospel, “Never return evil for evil,” and the Old Testament reading from Leviticus says not to incur guilt because of an enemy. Is Planned Parenthood really worth incurring gulit?

I can acknowledge that, in our fallen world, it’s sometimes sadly necessary to have anti-heroes who commit lesser evils to stpo greater ones. Yet I refuse to accept that as a normative position. It’s a morally justified position, but not a virtuous one. We must always strive for the highest standard of behavior in a given question.

Yet, rather than acknowledging that, those who are trying to support Lila Rose are engaging in calumny and detraction and ad hominems and misrepresentation. Kind of makes the concerns that Mark Shea has raised more valid that people are lying about what he’s said in order to promote their cause.

There are so many layers to this issue, but I just wonder if Lila Rose’s actions are even necessary when we have people like Abby Johnson.

Rather than lying, why not go to women in trouble and ask to accompany them to the abortuary, and help them through their experiences?

There are plenty of books where post abortive women share their experiences. I’ve had students who wrote essays about their abortions–often without any particular ideological slant–who confirmed, in their sadness, what it’s like. I used to teach out of a textbook with an essay by an abortion nurse who was talking about how wonderful abortion clinics supposedly are. The student wrote, basically, “The one I went to wasn’t anything like what she described. I just wanted counseling, but I went there, and it was creepy, and they were mean, and they didn’t talk about adoption or any help, and they told me I had to have an abortion, and maybe if I’d been to a clinic like the one she describes, I’d have had my baby now.” Of course, my student didn’t make the connection that this nurse was lying. . . .

Wouldn’t our cause be better served to collect real experiences like that?

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7 responses to “Of Lila Rose, Abby Johnson, and Westboro Baptist

  1. Mr. Hathaway,

    I’m Gerard Nadal. I have a pro-life science blog that addresses many of the same concerns as you. PLease drop me a line, and we can chat off the threads about some of the backstory here.

    gerardnadal60@gmail.com

    God Bless.

  2. “Yet here he’s arguing, basically, that Lila Rose’s actions are right because the consensus is that they’re right–so morality can be decided by vote?”

    “Shea points out that Lila Rose has no authorization from on high: she claims to be representing the women who’ve been to abortion clinics, but does she have some signed legal authorization?”

    Morality CAN’T be decided by vote, but CAN be decided by legal authorization (as long as it’s SIGNED). Gotcha pal.

    A lota words went into making no sense at all. Well, I guess it’s your dime.

    • A response to an argument is not the same thing as an argument. Shea is saying that,, the cop comparison doesn’t work, *if* undercover work is moral.

  3. A response to a response to an agrument is what, then? Anyway, I am not quoting Shea, I am quoting someone quoting Shea. If it takes a response to a response to an argument to clarify the original, then I suggest one simply speak more clearly from the outset.

    Here’s the issue as I see it: when human’s write a text, be it the Constitution of the United States, or a set of codified moral imperatives, there is going to be “grey area.” Lying is one of those grey areas, as is killing. The grey area, and reconciling it with black and white, is where much of great art exists (regarding killing, A Place in the Sun comes to mind; regarding lying, too many examples come to mind). The less artistic, the more we want to deny the grey areas and paint them either black or white. As a result, I have found many religious arguments, including these about lying, simply boring. Such argument tends to hinge on one or more assumptions (a religious argument does this almost by definition), and the logic behind the assumptions is some divine edict — OK. Fine. But lying in a human invention, and like all tools invented by human hand, we make use of them; some make more proper use of that tool than others. But saying the tool is evil, is like saying a gun is evil. It’s just plain old boring. Ho hum…. it’s getting late….

  4. Sorry about the typos!

  5. Lying isn’t a human invention; it’s the Devil’s invention. Jesus says that. He’s the father of lies.

    I’m not really sure what you’re arguing, except that you’re not interested in the texts.
    to say there’s a “grey area” is hardly a Catholic perspective, especially on something the Church teaches is intrinsically evil: “intrinsically evil” means there’s no grey area.

    And on killing, the Church doesn’t ever teach “killing” is OK. The Church teaches that violence is sometimes OK, and if killing occurs because of it, the person isn’t guilty. That’s why it’s called “double effect.”

    That we can never do evil that good may come of it is Catholic Ethics 101. That doesn’t mean anyone is condemning Lila Rose, but it *does* mean that we should admit the flaws of her approach and not praise her unconditionally.

    She may deserve the praise that Mark Shea and others say she deserves, even while criticizing her approach. Having learned more about the situation, such as the fact that she evokes Saul Alinsky, I’m less and less inclined to support her.

    One of the things I tried to say in this post that, according to you, said nothing, is that Lila Rose’s approach is unnecessary because there are other ways to legitimately obtain the same information, and that information is already out there in public.

    Yet, as Chris Tollefsen said, the pro-life movement is supposed to be all about a higher standard of morality for society and for everyone, and if we stoop to adopting a lower standard of morality to achieve our ends, that makes the pro-life movement no better than the pro-choice movement. It’s why we don’t shoot abortionists, and it’s why we shouldn’t deceive them, either.

    This week’s Gospel was the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. How, do Lila Rose’s methods conform to Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount? How is she “turning the other cheek”?

  6. I agree with much you said. For example, if there are several ways to achieve something, take the highest road. But the controversy was highlighted by the way she did it — otherwise I would never have heard about it. She may have taken the best approach for that reason.

    It is a “nice” distinction between killing as a consequence of deadly violence, for example in war when you don’t want your enemy soldier to heal and fight against you again, and simply killing; does it all boil down to how you feel or what you think when you pull the trigger? A Place in the Sun comes to mind again.

    Turning the other cheek has grey area as well. Protecting yourself and loved ones is in your DNA — turn the other cheek too much and your DNA doesn’t make it to the gene pool from whence we all spring; poof, then it’s gone.

    Lying falls into the grey area. It’s “nice” to have absolutes that say “never,” and “always” and “always wrong.” It’s just not real. Shea said he didn’t want to discuss the “what ifs,” for example, what if a Nazi asks if your neighbor’s Jew children are hiding in the basement? The problem with Shea’s arguments thereafter are just that: you can’t ignore the “what ifs” because they define the grey, they truly define the noble (it wouldn’t be noble to say yes), and they define the human condition (which is why great art lives there).

    The book Siddhartha is about a religious journey through the grey area, I believe. He is seeking to leave the grey, to find black and white, but he can’t escape the grey, and ends up finding his home, his “black and white,” and his peace, in the grey.

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