Christopher Tollefsen, PhD
Professor of Philosophy, University of South Carolina
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity from the pro-life movement, much of it indisputably good. Currently, two bills are before Congress; one would amend those parts of the recent health care overhaul that are threatening to the pro-life cause; the other would eliminate federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood. Success in either case would mark major victories for pro-lifers in the legal domain.
The momentum for these bills comes in part from gains in the number of pro-lifers in the House of Representatives following the November 2010 elections. But in the case of the effort to defund Planned Parenthood (which currently receives approximately $300 million in federal money), additional impetus comes from recent work by the undercover group Live Action.
Led by Lila Rose, a dynamic and charismatic 22 year-old graduate of UCLA, Live Action has been carrying out “sting” operations against Planned Parenthood facilities, sending in actors with hidden cameras posing as pimps and prostitutes. In one sting, for example, the “pimp” says “Now, also, so we’re involved in sex work, so we have some other girls that we manage and work with that they’re going to need testing as well…” Planned Parenthood workers have been exposed, in several cases, as all too willing to facilitate the illegal and exploitative activities of these actors.
In fact, as I have argued elsewhere [editor’s note: see below], I think it is wrong to see what the “pimp” and his “prostitute” do simply as a kind of role-playing. These agents of Live Action seem engaged rather straightforwardly in both lying – deliberate assertion of something false in order to deceive – and in what Aquinas called “dissimulation”: acting so as to represent themselves as other than they are. Seen in this light, the agents’ tactics should raise red flags both for Catholics, and, I believe, for all truly committed pro-life citizens.
For Catholics, these tactics should be worrisome because the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its definitive edition, says “by its very nature lying is to be condemned.” In this teaching, the Catechism reaffirms a teaching of the Catechism of the Council of Trent: “In a word, lies of every sort are prohibited…” This teaching finds further confirmation in the writings of important Church figures such as St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom thought it was always wrong to lie.
At least some members of Live Action, and many of their defenders, are Catholic, and I believe they need to give very serious thought to whether their actions are not straightforwardly in violation of the Catechism’s, and so the Church’s, teaching. If so, they should certainly find a new way of pursuing the goal of an abortion free world.
Moreover, by reflecting on what St. Augustine specifically had to say about lying, I think we can see an even deeper problem for the pro-life movement as a whole here. St. Augustine was concerned that Catholics were lying in order to infiltrate a heretical sect, the Priscillianists; these Catholics were trying to defend the faith in doing so.
Yet Augustine pointed out that the faith, to truly succeed in the world, must succeed by being believed. And how, he asked “can there be any believing one who thinks it is sometimes right to lie, lest he haply lie at the moment when he teaches us to believe?”
Why is this thought of Augustine’s applicable to the pro-life cause? Isn’t it enough that our tactics stop abortions from happening? No, it is not. To truly be in the service of life, our movement cannot be satisfied with anything less than a culture of life, and such a culture can only be founded on a commitment to the truth about the humanity of the unborn, and a commitment to love unborn human beings just as we love ourselves and our neighbors.
But how can that lesson be taught, how can we bring a culture of life to the world, if we are willing to lie for it? Pro-lifers are already often accused of dishonesty: our work is said by some to mask hatred for women, or for sexual liberation. We know these claims are false: we work for the unborn out of a commitment to all human beings, including the unborn, whom we recognize as truly full members of the human family.
But this means that we must manifest our commitments to truth and love in everything that we do. And that especially includes our communication to our friends, neighbors, family members, and fellow citizens who are, at present, pro-choice.
Some will say that this puts us at a disadvantage over those who are willing to bend, shade, or distort the truth. The recently deceased pro-life hero, Bernard Nathanson repeatedly drew attention to the dishonesty of the pro-choice militants who would do anything, and say anything to advance their cause. For it was not hearts and minds that they sought to win; it was really only the advance of the cause: abortion on demand.
But our cause is hearts and minds. The surest way to an abortion free world is to bring all people to the truth that abortion kills a human being, and to teach a universal love of humanity so that everyone cares for unborn human beings. Unlike legislative victories that, though important, are only stepping stones, this cause cannot be won, cannot even be advanced, by anything less than truth and love.
I honor and admire the devotion of Live Action to the pro-life cause. But I fear that in the long run they are doing significant damage to the foundations of that cause. The pro-life movement must always be above reproach, and the case of Live Action is one instance where we must be called back to our better selves and be reminded that our ideals are essential to who and what we are.
Christopher Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry and Embryo: A Defense Of Human Life, co-authored with Robert P. George, and the editor most recently of Bioethics with Liberty and Justice: Themes in the Work of Joseph M. Boyle.
To follow Tollefsen’s debate with scholars on the ethics of lying and Live Action’s tactics, see the following pieces from Tollefsen, Christopher Kaczor, Tollefsen, Hadley Arkes, Tollefsen, and Carson Holloway on Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal for the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton.