Twenty-year-old Lila Rose suffers from a condition that afflicts many new activists, a condition known as myopia. Those who suffer from myopia experience an inability to see nuance in the world and seek comfort in absolutes. While thought to be more pronounced among the young, myopia can infect people of all ages with varying results, and the results of Rose’s particular strain of this cerebral infection have only just begun to make themselves known.
It’s not clear how Rose became involved in the pro-life movement – it is a question she studiously avoids answering. Perhaps it is no surprise that a girl who grew up with seven siblings in an Evangelical family in San Jose, California, would become passionate about putting a stop to abortion. But religiosity is not a sure path to fanaticism, and as easy as it would be to demonize this young woman as a misguided anti-abortion extremist, or undermine her position by focusing on who is pulling her marionette strings, that view ignores Rose’s power over her own actions. But when we engage with her controversial methods and explore the (largely one-sided) response they have elicited we find Lila Rose is intent on appropriating some of the principles upon which the social justice movement is founded.
Rose, a history student at UCLA, is the founder of the somewhat pornographically named “Live Action Films,” the ultimate goal of which, says Rose:
is to use educational media to help create a world where the life of every human being, even the smallest or least developed, is protected. We are student journalists and work to expose sexual abuse cover-up and racism at the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. The group uses police-quality undercover equipment to record a loosely scripted conversation in which Rose and her cohorts bait Planned Parenthood employees into violating the organization’s policies. Videos of the in-person and phone conversations are then posted on YouTube and the Live Action Films website. Welcome to twenty-first century stealth pro-life activism, folks.
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Rose’s methods do simply replicate those used by police officials (and Dateline NBC) to apprehend prostitutes, drug dealers, and child sex offenders. Though those methods raise many worthwhile ethical questions, few would have batted an eye had she not captured a handful of questionable encounters with Planned Parenthood staff, the most damning of which shows a service provider at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region telling Rose, who the provider believes to be a 14-year-old girl, that Rose can protect her 31-year-old boyfriend by lying about his age when she seeks an abortion.
The encounters are not as sensational as Rose would like you to believe. The brief moments she chooses to focus on take place within a lengthy conversation–Rose’s encounter with the Greater Memphis affiliate lasted 28 minutes–in which the context of particular statements is not always clear. Although the Memphis video is available ‘in its entirety’ by Live Action Films, seemingly a move toward transparency, some of the dialogue curiously remains muted by Rose. Because Rose isn’t the adolescent she claimed to be and Tennessee’s law gives health professionals the benefit of discretion in deciding which cases to report–merely encouraging rather than requiring a mandated heath care provider to notify legal authorities if abuse is suspected–none of the employees actually committed a criminal act. Even so, despite not being illegal, the employees’ actions are ethically questionable, and still run afoul of Planned Parenthood’s policy of reporting suspected statutory rape.
The extent of the “problem” of unreported statutory rape is enormously unclear; Rose has not been forthcoming in stating the precise number of clinics she has visited so her sample size is unclear (is this an anomalous situation in one out of 100 or 500 clinics visited?) nor has she disclosed how often clinic staff responded appropriately to her created dilemma. Since it is clear that in any large health care system some missteps are unavoidable–to err is human, after all–and that a few employees out of the over 30,000 people who work with Planned Parenthood will exhibit less-than-stellar practices, it is misleading for Rose to cherry pick the worst offenders as “proof” that the cover up of sexual abuse is widespread within the organization without further context.
Since Rose has videotaped patients inside a health care facility and made that video publicly available, some have voiced criticism at the potential violation of a patient’s right to privacy, others have decried Rose’s script as entrapment, and others still have demanded that Rose compensate Planned Parenthood for wasting the organization’s resources. The latter two are the easiest to respond to: the services Rose availed herself of are typically offered at no cost, and so there is nothing for her to reimburse. As far as entrapment is concerned, since Rose is a private citizen, not a law enforcement officer, this line of legal argument fails to apply.
The privacy rights issue is more difficult to discern. Since laws vary by state, it is unclear the rights of the patients who appear in Live Action Films are being violated when their likenesses are not actually displayed publicly. (Live Action Films has blurred the faces of the patients on the videos they have released.) We also don’t know which states’ laws may apply, as the locations of the clinics are only divulged when Live Action Films chooses to release the selective footage.
If, legally speaking, neither Rose nor Planned Parenthood has done anything wrong, what is so special about yet another argument regarding abortion and morality? Morality is, after all, largely in the eye of the beholder. I realized why I was so bothered by Rose’s expertly tailored media persona while listening to an interview she did with radio host Laura Ingraham, and found myself nodding in agreement with Rose about elements of her argument.
Here’s what Rose told Ingraham: “[The pro-choice movement] should demand the best from their abortion providers…they need to demand the best behavior and the best law-abiding protection of women from these supposed people on their side.” Any health care provider requires regular self-assessment regarding both the protection of patients’ rights and providers’ responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the provider to ensure staff are not only effectively trained at the time they are hired, but also that they continue to comply with the organization’s policies and procedures throughout the duration of employment. Rose’s examples, however out of context they may be, hit home the point that providers and pro-choice advocates are already aware of and work to address: ensuring an impeccable quality of care is enormously important and needs to be a high priority for both health care providers and the pro-choice movement.
Rose’s use of feminist and anti-racist language on Ingraham’s show made me ponder why she seemed so keen to channel SisterSong’s vision of reproductive justice, and why she appeared to be speaking to her opponents instead of to her comrades. I had convinced myself this was a momentary lapse from Rose until a similar argument purporting to demonstrate her concern for women arose when she appeared in an interview with Glenn Beck (“Planned Parenthood institutionally covers up sexual abuse to procure secret abortions for little girls and then sends them back to the sexual abuser”) and once more on Hannity’s America (“79% of [Planned Parenthood’s] clinics are in minority neighborhoods, and an African American baby is almost as likely to be aborted because of this as it is to be born. Abortion is truly impacting, devastating the African American community and Planned Parenthood is behind that.”)
Obviously, this was not a temporary lapse. Lila Rose is using a tactic that has been utilized by anti-abortion activists to combat global reproductive health services for the past 30 years: to co-opt the rhetoric of the Left – in this case, specific reproductive justice concerns and commitments – in order to use it against them. As Michelle Goldberg details in The Means of Reproduction, in the 1980s feminists fought for a paradigm shift in global reproductive rights by criticizing the cultural imperialism of population control advocates who believed in the necessity of decreasing population growth in “undeveloped” countries only to have this same criticism thrown back at them by the same conservative groups a decade later. Rose hasn’t found a new tactic, just new packaging.
The anti-abortion movement has always been good at using the media to popularize their message. Rose has been featured on several Fox News segments, and she also publishes a newspaper, The Advocate, through her university. Live Action Films has been sending out press releases detailing their activities on a nearly biweekly basis since September 2008, and the frequency has increased in recent months. This could be the beginning of a rebranding of the pro-life movement.
So far the Left has been largely silent about Rose’s activities- a mistaken underestimation of the power of media and the ability of the Right to shape the debate by putting the pro-choice community in a weaker, defensive position. It is difficult to debunk a story that has surged unchecked throughout the blogosphere and appeared on credible media outlets; but more than that, if established, it will be nearly impossible to unravel a pro-life discourse that removes the Left’s claim on fighting racism and sexism within reproductive health.
Feminists and health advocates need to respond publicly to Rose’s dubious assertions that Planned Parenthood is a nefarious organization that facilitates sexual abuse and racial genocide. They need to point out that her paternalistic attitude toward women and minority groups only serves to perpetuate the institutionalized sexism and racism that permeates our society by denying them affordable health care services from an organization that offers a range of services, 97 percent of services are preventive services (gynecological exams, contraception distribution, STI testing and treatment, cervical and breast cancer screenings, sexual health education, etc) and where, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America spokesperson Diane Quest, “any removal of public funding would only serve to deny women, men, and young people critical preventive health care.”
Advocates also need to talk about supportive ways to hold Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers accountable to their own policies: providing financial and in-kind support for staff professional development and monitoring of policy compliance, advocating for pro-choice legislation, reporting policy infractions to executive staff and other already-established regulatory bodies, conducting research to identify best practices, and building coalitions among pro-choice organizations and groups that work to support girls who are sexually exploited, to name a few. They also need to point out that what Rose is doing may put clinic staff in danger, as some of the information made public in her videos could be used for perilous purposes (for example, the days the doctors are in the clinic and the process by which discarded tissue is disposed of). They need to talk about all of the women and people of color who are employed by Planned Parenthood who are at risk of losing their jobs if the organization loses funding.
Lila Rose believes that her goal is righteous, and the pro-life community does too. She received a $50,000 Life Prize in February from the Gerard Health Foundation to work toward her goal of “continuing to do nonprofit educational work to reach the public with the message that all human beings are created equal, and should be protected by law and by individual choice.” It’s time for the Left to start talking about these videos and these tactics. We cannot allow feminism to act as a cover for misogynists with short-sighted, myopic objectives.