Spotlight on abortion activist makes Catholics nervous

April 26, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose has shared the stage
with Sarah Palin, seen her exploits extolled on Fox News and drawn
comparisons to heroic Gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.

So why are some conservative Christians so uneasy about her work?

The telegenic 22-year-old will address the seventh annual National
Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday (April 27) in Washington, along
with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Virginia Gov. Robert
McDonnell.

Rose, who converted to Catholicism two years ago, is founder and
president of Live Action, which she calls "a new media pro-life
organization." The group has released dozens of covertly taped videos in
which Rose and other activists pose as pimps or underage girls seeking
abortions, birth control or exams from unwitting Planned Parenthood
clinics.

Joseph Cella, a conservative political consultant who founded the
prayer breakfast, called Rose a poster child for Jesus' counsel that
Christians be "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

"Lila is one of the bright young leaders of the pro-life movement,"
Cella said. "She is going to be around for a long time."

Cella acknowledged, though, that Rose's work has provoked a "family
squabble" among conservative Christians.

In fact, the Live Action debate seems less an internecine spat than
a university seminar, with philosophers and political scientists
consumed by a clear-cut but complex question: Is it ever moral to lie?

Rose said Live Action's deceptive tactics serve a larger truth.

"The purpose of all our visual investigative work is to expose
abuses and injustices against those who are defenseless," she said.

Her target, Planned Parenthood, receives about $360 million in
federal funding. By law, none of that money can be used for abortions,
which the nationwide group says constitute 3 percent of its services.

Rose's brand of activism resembles that of James O'Keefe, the
conservative provocateur whose work led to the federal defunding of the
community group ACORN and the resignation of two National Public Radio
executives. Rose and O'Keefe collaborated on similar video projects
several years ago at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In Live Action videos released in February, Planned Parenthood
employees appear willing to help presumed pimps obtain medical care and
abortions for underage prostitutes.

Seizing on the videos, House Republicans -- and 11 Democrats --
voted to defund Planned Parenthood in February; the resolution later
died in the Senate.

Planned Parenthood calls the tapes "hoaxes" that are "clearly
doctored and cannot be trusted." But it also fired a New Jersey employee
and pledged to re-educate staff on rules for reporting dangers to young
girls.

Many conservative Christians rejoiced at the blow to Planned
Parenthood, but Princeton University scholar Robert P. George was not
among them.

The "sting" videos are a form of lying, which the Catholic Church
teaches is "always and everywhere wrong," George wrote in a February
blog post.

"We must not permit our cause to be sullied by lying," continued
George, a leading intellectual who advises the U.S. Catholic bishops.
"We must not abandon faith in the power of truth to transform those who
oppose us in the great struggle over the protection of human life in all
stages and conditions."

Other Catholic scholars worry that defending Rose's deceptions means
joining the Western trend toward moral relativism, which church leaders,
including Pope Benedict XVI, have fiercely fought.

A recent editorial in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity
Today said "unease" about Live Action's methods "has embittered what
might have been reckoned a sweet triumph." The magazine also questioned
whether Rose's "ethical shortcuts" rely too heavily on scandal to fight
legalized abortion.

Debating the morality of undercover work is actually an ancient
Christian tradition, according to Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of
philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

St. Augustine tried to settle the argument back in the fourth
century: He wanted to stop Christians from spying on rival sects to root
out heresy.

Rose said that she has consulted with her spiritual director and
other Catholics, who offered assurance that history is also rife with
saints who used deception for worthy causes.

Take, for instance, the Hebrew midwives who lied to protect children
from a murderous pharaoh, and priests who forged baptismal certificates
to save Jews during the Holocaust.

"The bottom line is this," Rose said. "It's a tradition in our
church, and we are doing this to expose the truth and to instruct and
illuminate, posing as real cases that are happening every day."

Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher at Boston College, agrees with
Rose.

"The closest analogy I can think of ... is spying," Kreeft wrote in
a recent column. "If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying,
including spying out the Nazis' atomic bomb projects and saving the
world from a nuclear holocaust."

Rose's lawyer, Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, calls the
Live Action debate "much ado about nothing."

"Their behavior seems no different from what a police department
would engage in, or `60 Minutes,' or `Dateline,"' Breen said. "They
engage in investigative journalism to learn the truth.