Friday, March 11, 2011

Hidden Camera Videos Fail the "Mom" Test

 “Never trust a decision you don’t want your mother to know about,” Abby Johnson says in UnPlanned about  her decision to work in the abortion industry.

That line keeps coming up to me as the various “hidden camera” investigations keep turning up, showing, among other things, bad behavior at Planned Parenthood and NPR.

I’m writing about this here again because it does relate to  UnPlanned, a Catholic Post Book Group selection and I think these issues deserve another look.

When I worked full-time in the pro-life movement in the 1980s and 1990s, “rescuing,” or civil disobedience, was popular.  In fact, part of the condition of my employment was to agree not to be arrested in pro-life activity (!).  So even though I did not do “rescues,” (something not legal) I feel confident if I had decided to, I could have shared it with my parents:  “Mom, Dad, I feel this issue and the lives of unborn children are so important that I am willing to practice civil disobedience and go to jail for this.”

But I could not have defended to my Mom being part of a hidden camera type investigation, no matter what positive outcome happened as a result of it.

I’m not saying that because they don’t pass my “Mom” test, therefore these kinds of actions are wrong.  I’m saying it is something to consider.

I’ve read so much on both sides from philosophers (here’s a very brief round-up of the mostly civil debate about the morality of these kinds of actions).  It's clear you can make a reasoned Catholic case for either side.  Personally, though, I wouldn’t participate in it, nor not want to be on the receiving end, of being recorded or taped secretly.  It’s a kind of violation.

What I’m having trouble with is the sizeable number of people--those who believe in the hidden camera tactic--who feel the need to attack those who raise legitimate moral concerns. One example is Pat Archbold, who created a strawman called “armchair pro-lifers” who aren’t willing to get into the fight, according to him.  It may have gotten him lots of page hits and comments, but all I can say is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Just because someone does not agree with the way you are active on pro-life issues does not make them “anti-life.”

Ironically, even though Abby Johnson gave me the idea of the “Mom test,” she agrees with the Live Action tactics, and even serves as an adviser to them now, according to her interview on EWTN’s The World Over.  Before I knew that, I brought it up with her in my Q&A last month.  As I've mentioned before, I respect her view but I don’t share it. As I wrote in my review of UnPlanned, in my younger days, I too, scoffed at not being pro-life “my way” as not effective pro-life work.   Now I see there are myriad ways to be a force for promoting life in the world.

I also have thoughts about the hidden camera investigation that caused some heads to roll at  NPR.  The man caught on tape was saying all sorts of ridiculous things, and even though he’s not a reporter, commentators are using it to show the  intractable liberal bais at NPR.

Not so fast. I spent much time in pro-life work and at conventions talking about the reality of media bias and how to work with reporters.  Yes, media bias exists, especially on the abortion issue.  Just one example:  look at the mainstream media coverage of the March for Life each year.

All I can say is that I’m sure the NPR fundraiser who made those derogatory comments is not pretending to be a Tea Party activist in his free time--it’s probably obvious where he’s coming from, and it’s not a nice place, regardless of his views.   What makes him so disagreeable is his contempt of people with views different than his.

That is certainly not true of all reporters.  For my part, I much preferred work with a reporter who was open about her views in favor of abortion, but covered the abortion evenly, than dozens of others who wouldn’t tell their views, but whose stories and coverage was super-biased.  Back in my days working with them, there were (and still are) plenty of NPR reporters worthy of respect, and some who weren’t.  But you don’t need a “hidden camera” to figure out who is who.

I think the much more important work is training ourselves, and especially kids who are growing up in this Internet age, in media literacy and media mindfulness.   There’s a lot of good coverage on a range of topics at, for instance, NPR, but also many other news sources.  Learning to discern the good from the not-so-good, the helpful from the harmful, is part of being a mature media consumer.


  1. beautifully put nancy!

    whatever actions we take in the name of life, they must be considered through the filter of our catholic beliefs first. while i know there is much discussion about what is 'right' or 'wrong' action according to our faith, i must maintain that deception is never the best path to connection.

    people may wonder what connection has to do with anything. but it when we connect with others, even the perceived enemy, as fully human and worthy that we can finally work toward an agreement that honors all life.

    if we cannot respect the life and humanity of the pp staffer in front of us enough to be fully honest, then how can we expect them to see that the unborn child is also life?

    jen mcdaniel

  2. Nancy, I really appreciate this wise, level-headed perspective. As a young, sometimes emotional, quick-to-jump-to-conclusions woman it's nice to read this sort of thing. It's how I learn. Thank you.

  3. Please explain how the pp staffer was disrespected.

  4. Lori, I will get back with a response very soon, but I have been both sick and traveling. In the meantime, if you look at the discussion by Catholic philosophers and law professors I link to above, you can see some of the concerns I raise. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  5. wow! i just read the most amazing passage and i immediately thought of this 'undercover film' issue. the people making the film wished to deceive the pp workers- lie about who they really were and what they really wanted- for the purposes of good.

    this is from Michael O'Brien's book, Father Elijah. (maybe we will see this reviewed on teh Catholic Post Book Group soon!)

    "We must do whatever is possible without going beyond the boundaries of the divine principles. We cannot take up the weapons of evil in order to defeat evil. To do so, even in the defense of good, would be to be doubly defeated. I believe that is Satan's ultimate objective. Why would a fallen angel want to kill six million, or sixty or a hundred million, or even the whole human race? What would that prove? That he is bad? He already knows that, and God knows it too. No, the prize he is after is no less than to seduce all mankind into his rebellion. And to do it in the name of the good. That would be his masterstroke."

    thanks nancy,
    Jen McDaniel