What are Christians to Make of Sting Videos?


By Scott McClare

By now you can't have escaped hearing about the latest Planned Parenthood (PP) scandal. Beginning on July 15, a pro-life group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) has released a series of videos—five so far—in which actors have posed as buyers for a fictitious biomedical research company and secretly taped interviews with prominent PP personnel, in which they admit to harvesting fetal organs and tissue for sale to medical researchers. In the first video, a doctor nonchalantly eats lunch while she explains how she would "crush" the unborn child in a way to preserve desirable organs. In the second, released a week later, another doctor describes how a "less crunchy technique" would preserve the fetal organs, remarking that the cost of the specimen would need to be worth their while: "I want a Lamborghini," she quips. Each video is more graphic and revealing than the last. In the most recent, released this Tuesday, a PP employee remarks that "if we alter our process and we are able to obtain intact fetal cadavers, it's all just a matter of line items."

However, in some Christian pro-life circles, sting operations like this one raise ethical questions—not about the abortionists' actions, which every Christian should agree are evil, but the ethics of the sting itself. After all, stings involve strategic deception, and isn't lying wrong?[1] When Paul asked, "why not do evil that good may come?" (Romans 3:8),[2] he was being sarcastic. The ends do not always justify the means.

What are Christians to make of the use of deception in stings or investigative journalism?

Christians have held basically three different views on this subject. In the first view, lying is always sinful. True moral dilemmas (situations that can only be escaped by committing one sin or another) do not exist, and there is always a way out of a tricky moral situation that does not require one to lie.[3] In the second view, moral dilemmas do exist, in which case one must commit a lesser sin to avoid a greater one. Nonetheless, the lesser sin is still sin that must be repented of and confessed. In the third view, when faced with a moral dilemma, we are obliged to obey the higher command, and in doing so are exempted from the guilt of disobeying the lesser one.

I am arguing in favour of this third position. The obligation to obey God's commands is an overarching moral absolute, worked out in the obligation to love God and our neighbours. Individual commandments are, practically speaking, absolutes. Thus, I am not arguing for situational ethics, in which there are no moral norms beyond "what is the most loving thing to do?" However, moral imperatives do need to be understood in light of their intent; as we wrestle with morally complex situations, we must try to discern the rationale for the commands. It may be possible to violate God's intent even when obeying the strict letter of the law.

We can all agree that under normal circumstances, lying is a sin, particularly when there is no need to lie, or our reasons are purely selfish. The Bible never directly commends lying, although it does commend telling the truth (for example, Exodus 20:16; Ephesians 4:25). Truthfulness reflects the character of God, who cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18).

Nonetheless, the ethics of deceit are not always cut-and-dried:

1. Is it sinful, in a hockey game, to deke right but pass left?

2. Is it sinful to tell your girlfriend that she looks nice, even if you think her outfit is unattractive?

3. Was it sinful for the Allies to deceive the Germans into believing the D-day invasion would assault Pas-de-Calais, not Normandy?

4. Is it sinful to lie to an abusive husband about his wife's whereabouts if you believe he means to harm her?

The first two situations illustrate that small deceptions are a part of everyday life. They are arguably trivial and do no harm. If "white lies" can be avoided, then they should be—but no one has ever called an athlete's integrity into question for faking out his opponents.

In the last two situations, however, the lies are neither trivial nor done for personal gain, but instead are intended to contain evil by defeating Hitler's armies or preventing an angry man from doing violence to his wife. The sting videos are of the same kind of moral complexity. Fortunately, the Bible provides some indirect guidance concerning this kind of moral dilemma.

The Egyptian Pharaoh intended to weaken the Israelites through infanticide. However, two Hebrew midwives refused to kill Israelite babies, and lied to Pharaoh, saying that Israelite women were giving birth before they arrived. As a result, God blessed the midwives and gave them large families of their own (Exodus 1:15-21).

Before the conquest of Jericho, the prostitute Rahab sheltered Israelite spies, hiding them on her roof, but telling the authorities they had already left the city (Joshua 2:1-7). Consequently, Rahab is commended in Hebrews 11:31 for her act of faith.

Since both of these deceptions seem to have divine approval, it appears God places a higher priority on preserving life than telling the truth. Some have argued that God commended the midwives' and Rahab's faith, but not their deceit.[4] As I see it, the deceit was intrinsic to their acts of faith, which otherwise would have failed. Honesty might be the best policy under normal circumstances, but under these circumstances God's enemies intended to kill God's people, and they did not deserve to know the truth if it would aid them in their evildoing.

Similarly, there is no question that Planned Parenthood is involved in the mass destruction of human life. It performed 1/3 of all abortions in the US, over 327 000 abortions last year.[5] By filming them doing what they do, CMP's sting simply exposed what PP does on its home turf. The fifth video, which shows someone poking through a casserole dish full of dead fetus parts, is more grotesque than anything I have seen Scott Klusendorf or Jojo Ruba present in their talks. These videos revealed the reality of what abortion is. Pro-choice critics will never again be able to falsely accuse pro-life speakers of using graphic images that misrepresent the consequences of abortion.

CMP has also exposed the utter callousness of abortion practitioners who joke about their work and chow down on salad while discussing the best way to crush unborn human beings. If Planned Parenthood had known in advance that they were being stung, they could have covered this evil up. They did not deserve to know the "buyers'" true intentions.

In the late 18th century, while abolitionist William Wilberforce toiled in Parliament to outlaw slavery, his friend Thomas Clarkson travelled throughout England, gathering evidence against the slave trade. This consisted of stories from sailors, surgeons and others involved in the trade, as well as instruments used by slavers to restrain and torture slaves. He displayed these instruments at public meetings and printed pictures of them in his pamphlets. Clarkson understood that visual aids made his lectures more persuasive than words alone. Since he was hostile to the slave trade, it was unlikely that slavers would donate their tools of torture to him willingly; therefore, it's no surprise that he sometimes used subterfuge to collect his evidence. These tools eventually helped Wilberforce rally abolitionists and helped convinced many to finally outlaw slavery.

Our present abolitionists are also gathering evidence against the horrors of the modern-day trade in human flesh. Like Thomas Clarkson, they put themselves at considerable risk, but they do so to reveal the horrors of the abortion industry in terms that an online, visually oriented culture can understand. They are bringing the "unfruitful works of darkness" (Ephesians 5:11) into the light. We need more warriors like this. May their tribe increase!

[1] For example, the Roman Catholic Church has historically taken the position that lying is always evil, even if done for good reasons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls lying "intrinsically disordered" (CCC, sec. 1753).

[2] Scripture citations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[3] People who hold to this position appeal to texts such as 1 Corinthians 10:13: "[God] will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

[4] The note for Exodus 1:19 in the Geneva Bible reads, "Their disobedience in this was lawful, but their deception is evil."

[5] Penny Star, "Planned Parenthood: We Aborted 327,653 in FY2014," CNSNews.com, December 31, 2014, accessed August 6, 2015, http://cnsnews.com/news/article/penny-starr/planned-parenthood-we-aborted-327653-fy2014.