Lila Rose: Hidden Camera Videos Raise Ethical Questions

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Lila Rose: Hidden Camera Videos Raise Ethical Questions

Jon Collins

Following the success of efforts to defund ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after an undercover video campaign, anti-choicers are targeting Planned Parenthood.

This article is published as part of a partnership between Minnesota Independent, the Center for Independent Journalism, and Rewire.

The grainy video, filmed in Bloomington, Ind., last year, features a young woman with bleach-blonde hair fidgeting in her chair. As haunting music loops over her small voice, she tells a Planned Parenthood worker that she’s 13 years old, almost 14. She mentions an older boyfriend.

The worker says Indiana law dictates that people 13 years old or under
who have had intercourse must be reported to Child Protective Services.
The timestamp in the corner of the screen skips back and forth. The
video lingers accusingly on a clip, edited to repeat multiple times, of
the worker saying she didn’t hear the boyfriend’s age. It fades into

Lila Rose, the 21-year-old woman behind an undercover video campaign
against Planned Parenthood, as well as the actress in most of her
recordings, is scheduled to travel to Minnesota to speak at a benefit
dinner for Pro-Life Action Ministries in Brooklyn Center on Monday.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Following the successful bipartisan push to defund ACORN
(Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after a similar
undercover video campaign, abortion opponents are refocusing their
energy on Planned Parenthood. Only last weekend, following a speech in
which she said she wished abortions in the United States would be conducted literally in “public squares,”
Rose hosted a breakout session at the 2009 Value Voters Summit entitled
“Defunding Planned Parenthood.” Participants were urged to “learn from
people, like you, who have successfully stopped Planned Parenthood
funding in their communities.”

Rose is a superstar in the anti-abortion movement, backing a
California ballot measure to constitutionally expand the legal
definition of a human to include fetuses and rubbing shoulders with
Republican luminaries like Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The videos she produces are designed to fuel allegations that
Planned Parenthood staff neglect to report statutory rape, as many
state laws require. With only nine videos in her holster, her
organization, Live Action, has managed to threaten some government
funding for Planned Parenthood in Indiana, California and Tennessee —
despite the fact that none of those organizations has ever used such
funds for abortions.

Rose’s work faces criticism from reproductive-rights advocates who
allege the videos are edited manipulatively and feature non-medical
staff. It also raises ethical questions about secretly videotaping
workers and the mainstream media’s careless treatment of the videos.

“Defunding Planned Parenthood”

Kathi Di Nicola, spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota,
South Dakota and North Dakota (PPMNS) said her organization wasn’t
threatened by Rose’s impending visit.

“Serving the reproductive needs of our patients is our number-one
priority, day in and day out,” Di Nicola said. “We’ve done that for 81
years in Minnesota and we’re not intimidated by those who attempt to
undermine our work.”

Representatives from both PPMNS and Planned Parenthood Federation of
America (PPFA) declined to comment about security measures prompted by
Rose’s undercover videos or her presence in the state this week.

There’s been little direct public response to Rose’s operation from
Planned Parenthood, which is, after all, no stranger to criticism.
Their rejoinders have been limited to some general statements and a
pair of now-withdrawn lawsuits in California.

“Ultimately, their modus operandi has been to try to minimize the
scandal because clearly they want to keep operating as they are,” Rose
said in an interview with the Minnesota Independent.

Planned Parenthood is accustomed to taking heat from anti-abortion
activists, despite the fact that only a small proportion of the
services the organization provides involve abortion, said Linnea House,
executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.

The tactic’s goal “is to get [a worker] to say something that the
general public would disagree with,” House said. “It seems like what
they’re trying to do is get Planned Parenthood defunded.”

Rose claims to have cost Planned Parenthood $1.1 million nationwide
because of her videos. In June 2009, the Tennessee state legislature
worked to revoke Planned Parenthood’s preferential status for federal
Title X Family Planning funds because of outrage fueled by one of
Rose’s videos that purported to show a Planned Parenthood worker
telling an underage girl how to avoid statutory rape charges for her
older boyfriend.

Representatives of Planned Parenthood in the greater Memphis area
say the final legislation won’t really affect their funding, but that
it’s more of a symbolic vote.

Rose also said her videos have led to the firing or other
reprimanding of Planned Parenthood workers. The Planned Parenthood
Federation of America declined to comment on specific staffing issues
related to the videos, but in an e-mailed statement PPFA spokesman
Diane Quest said, “Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers take all
claims [of employee misconduct], regardless of their source, seriously.”

Quest said the organization is dedicated to protecting teens, and making sure they receive the medical care they need.

“Millions of parents trust that their teens will get accurate
information and quality care at Planned Parenthood health centers, and
affiliate staff work exceptionally hard to maintain that trust,” Quest
said. “In the rare cases when an affiliate health center determines
that a staff person hasn’t met Planned Parenthood’s high standards of
employment, swift action is taken — action that can include retraining
and other steps.”

But a leaked e-mail from Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region
CEO Barry Chase to state legislators in April pointed out that the
worker featured in Rose’s Memphis video was a translator, not a nurse
or caregiver. That’s another common criticism of Rose’s videos; it’s
often unclear who she is filming and in what context. In the e-mail,
Chase refers to the Memphis video as “highly edited.”

It’s also not clear that she’s ever sat down with Planned
Parenthood’s trained nurses, instead focusing on clerical or other
workers. According to the PPFA, Rose never had official patient
appointments or filled out any paper work.

Biased media or media bias?

Since the ACORN videos broke, the tactic of secretly videotaping the
political opponents of right-wing activists has quickly gained
mainstream conservative approval.

“It’s definitely a trend or even beyond a trend, it’s a growing
number of people that are not just listening to the mainstream media
anymore, or what used to be the mainstream media, and instead are
determined to really find the facts for themselves,” Rose told the
Minnesota Independent.

Such undisclosed investigations can be ethically troubling, said
Jane Kirtley, professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of
Minnesota and member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics

“Just because you’re doing something that involves hidden camera
surveillance doesn’t mean you’re doing it for journalistic purposes,”
Kirtley said.

In traditional journalism circles, she said, the use of undercover
cameras is regarded as a last resort, and in many states it can be

“There is this aspect of it which troubles people, the old question:
Do the ends justify the means?” Kirtley said. “If you’re going to be
uncovering misconduct on the part of somebody else, does that justify
your engaging in something that some people think is inappropriate,
like using deception?”

Kirtley said Rose’s videos, depending on how they are done, could
potentially fit into the media’s watchdog role, which has often been
fulfilled or supplemented by advocacy groups.

Rose, who wavers between referring to herself as a “journalist” and
“activist,” readily admits that her aim is dramatic effect, shrugging
off criticism that undercover videos can land her in ethically murky
water. (Aside from a stint publishing a campus magazine at UCLA, Rose
has no formal journalistic experience.)

“Those are diversions from the real subject at hand, which is that
young girls are being abused sexually and taken in for secret
abortions,” Rose said. “A lot of times, [these criticisms] are shameful
diversions because what those people are saying basically is any
undercover journalism and any work like this is just not OK.”

Rose points out that mainstream media shows like NBC Dateline’s “To
Catch a Predator” use her form of undercover journalism.  In fact, Rose
turns the tables on mainstream media outlets, accusing them of
political bias for not following up on her investigations.

“People get uncomfortable with certain organizations being exposed
and the embarrassment it causes them because of the true horrific
things that are happening behind the closed doors of those
organizations,” Rose said. “They’re willing to sacrifice the public
being truly informed as they should be for their own political agenda.
As a journalist I find that sickening and I think that’s not right; I
think the public deserves to know.”

But Kirtley said the mainstream media’s big problem resides in its
rush to air videos like Rose’s without providing appropriate
disclaimers or context.

“I’m not suggesting that news organizations of any stripe shouldn’t
use user-generated content. There are many times where that’s
absolutely appropriate and enriches the whole news-gathering and
reporting experience,” Kirtley said. “If you’re taking material from a
group that has an agenda, you have an obligation to be absolutely clear
in rebroadcasting the material that it comes from them and you’re
reporting it because of the fact that they did it and not because the
content is necessarily accurate.”

Rose said her organization has prepared other videos for 2009.
Although Rose won’t disclose how many undercover videos her
organization has shot or where they were filmed, she said that a 2009
video based in Minnesota is a possibility.

Despite her intense involvement in anti-abortion events and
activism, Rose said her mission to “defund Planned Parenthood” isn’t
about abortion.

“Many [young women] are manipulated by partners or by older men
[…] into getting these abortions, so definitely we’re staunchly
against [abortion],” Rose said. “But even on a purely organizational
level, the way that Planned Parenthood operates in accepting tax money
and in manipulating women and assessing the sexual abuse cover-up is
reason enough to stop taxpayer funds going to the organization.”

Linnea House of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota said the loss of any
funding for the organization would hurt Planned Parenthood’s mission as
the largest provider of family planning and reproductive health care in
the country.

“This is basically another tool for [anti-abortion activists] to be
doing some fear-mongering,” House said. “Doing these undercover exposés
on an organization that is internationally and nationally known as a provider is a tactic to be used by those who don’t have a whole lot of