Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ethics of Undercover Operations, Secret Videotapes and Stings

A recently released video exposes Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood, discussing over lunch the “intentional harvesting of organs and other tissues from babies aborted in Planned Parenthood clinics.” It is a very difficult video to watch for several reasons, including wondering what it was like for Dr. Nucatola to wake up with an assumed private conversation plastered all over the world-wide web.

I was targeted once by a Jehovah’s Witness in an undercover operation. Initially, he portrayed himself to be an earnest spiritual seeker, but as the conversation progressed it became obvious he was a pro and I was the subject of a rather elaborate sting. It was a very unpleasant feeling to realize I had been “had” and even more unpleasant to speculate that I had been recorded in the process. I felt violated and exposed.

This was primarily due to one statement I made. Feeling angry that this guy was wasting my time, I said something like, “Look, I’ve been a student of Greek for 7 years and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Unfortunately for me, he did know his Greek, or at least the bad Greek he had imbibed from that cult and he started to run circles around me. It was a rookie mistake. But a rookie mistake on a private phone call is one thing. What if it was being played back to a Jehovah’s Witness National Convention? 

So, I squirmed watching the Nucatola video. First, I squirmed from the sheer horror of her casual description of tearing apart babies to harvest their organs for money. But I also squirmed over the ethics of the sting. Was it really fair to set her up with questions and edit that material together?

Of this, I am not so sure.

First off, I am not naïve. I realize there is no way any high-ranking official of Planned Parenthood would openly admit this “procedure” was being practised with the cameras rolling in their face. Not without gallons of nuance, distraction and spin. In all likelihood, it would be flatly denied. This is why police departments use under-cover officers. The bad guys generally don’t admit their wrong-doing when a uniformed officer walks up and asks them, “Did you rob the bank?” Just watch one episode of Cops if you don’t believe me. The undercover operative is a con man, gaining the confidence of the criminal so that he will admit his crimes.

The actors in the video did just that. They gained Nucatola’s confidence and led her to admit without prejudice a potential felony. (There is some debate about the criminality of her admission.) So, they exposed a potential crime through deception. But keep in mind, they were actors, not agents of the state.

The Bible is clear that no Christian is to lie. Ever. 

That said, there are three cases of deception that deserve careful attention. John Murray unpacks them very helpfully in his book, Principles of Conduct.

The first is called concealment or evasion. An example from the Bible would be Samuel going to Bethlehem to anoint David as Israel’s new king. God instructed him to say only that he was going there to sacrifice. That’s all. And that was true, but it was not the whole truth. Saul was an agent of evil in the land. He was intent on holding on to his rule at any cost including killing any threat to his throne. On this sinful trajectory, Saul did not deserve to know the whole truth. However, no untruth on Samuel’s part was involved. Samuel never lied about what he was going to do in Bethlehem and he, in fact, did it. He made the sacrifice… and secretly anointed David.

Second, there are cases of deliberate or strategic deception. When Joshua was instructed by God to retreat from Ai, it was understood that the army of Ai would interpret that retreat as defeat. Of course, the plan all along was that a second division of Joshua’s army would then attack the defenceless city and the “retreating” division would turn back and fight for real. And it worked. And Ai was defeated.

The question arises whether this action was a lie? The first thing to observe is that the terms of the relationship were not such that mutual understanding was a foundational prerequisite. These nations were at war. So, Israel was not under obligation to ensure Ai understood all of her actions. Secondly, there is no indication that Israel did anything other than turn and run. What I mean is that they did not send a messenger to Ai telling them they were in retreat. Obviously, they counted on Ai misunderstanding their actions, but they did not speak untruth in order to accomplish it. 

Finally, there are certainly cases of people outright lying and still being used of God. Rahab lied about the spies and that enabled Israel to prepare to sack Jericho. Most understand, however that God was faithful to Rahab in spite of her lie. In other words, there was some other way for her to navigate that situation that did not involve speaking an untruth. She just didn’t see it or use it. But God, who is able to work all things “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” redeemed the situation, without approving of the lie. He neither instructed her to lie nor approved of the lie, but he used the lie to accomplish good.

That leads to an evaluation of the Nucatola tape. It appears that the actors playing the part of organ-purchasers were deliberately telling an untruth. I think that for this they are not to be commended. 

Secondly, consider Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” I know some folks in the US who estimate their crisis pregnancy centre is visited by hostile undercover reporters at least once a month. I would not appreciate that. I do not believe any one of us would like it. This is not living out the Golden Rule. I am not suggesting that those on the other side of this issue play fair. I am suggesting that Christians ought to lead the way in doing so and not adopt the world’s methodology.

I judge this situation similar to the Rahab case. This ought not to have been done this way, but now it has been. And in the providence of God, the exposé on Nucatola is being used for good. What Planned Parenthood and every other abortion-on-demand provider is doing has been wrong for decades. In one sense, is the selling of infant organs any different than tossing them in a dumpster? But for some reason, it seems this generation has been grabbed by this story and if that is what God has to use in order to bring us to our senses, then to Him be all the glory. And may we Christians use much more truthful methods in the future. 

If you would like to comment on the Christian ethics of undercover operations, please do so below.


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