Is Lying Justified in the Effort to Stop Abortions?

A fascinating debate is taking place over at Mirror of Justice over the nature of the recent Live Action sting against Planned Parenthood in which two anti-abortion crusaders posed as underage sex traffickers in order to damage the credibility of Planned Parenthood. The debate first unfurled in the pro-life online journal Public Discourse between two pro-life philosophers—Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor. Robert George summarizes:

Tollefsen and Kaczor agree that Planned Parenthood is a deeply malicious organization that should, by all legitimate means, be vigorously opposed by everyone who recognizes the humanity, dignity, and right to life of the child in the womb. The question in dispute between them is whether lying is a legitimate means. Tollefsen, in line with the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, argues that lying is always and everywhere wrong, and may never be resorted to, even as a means of preventing wrongful killing and other grave injustices. His account of the moral wrongness of lying focuses on its damage to the integrity of the liar and to the relationship (the communio) of the liar and the person to whom the lie is directed—damage that is unavoidably done whether one’s lying is in a good cause or a bad one. Kaczor appeals to a counter tradition, one associated with Cassian and St. John Chrysostom, that maintains that there are narrow circumstances in which lying (to those who have “no right to be told the truth”) is permissible as a means of frustrating the efforts of a grave wrongdoer to achieve his evil objectives.

Aquinas, it is true, categorizes lying as a vice against justice. However, he also recognizes that not all lies bear the same moral weight:

Lies may be divided with respect to their nature as sins, and with regard to those things that aggravate or diminish the sin of lying, on the part of the end intended. Now the sin of lying is aggravated, if by lying a person intends to injure another, and this is called a “mischievous” lie, while the sin of lying is diminished if it be directed to some good–either of pleasure and then it is a “jocose” lie, or of usefulness, and then we have the “officious” lie, whereby it is intended to help another person, or to save him from being injured.(II-II, Q. 110, art 2).

As such, we might characterize Live Action’s lie as an officious one, with the intent to discredit Planned Parenthood enough to pull public funding, and hopefully diminish the organization’s power to perform abortions. The greater the good intended in the lie, Aquinas says, the more the sin is diminished. So Live Action is off the hook, right?

Actually, no. In the very next article, Aquinas goes on to say that every lie is a sin, by nature of its genus. Remember, for an action to be good, it must be good in every respect (object, end, and circumstance). In the reply to obj. 4 of the same article, he hammers the point home even more:

Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

And then, to complicate the issue even more, in article five he says that although all lies are sins, joking lies and officious lies are not mortal sins. So if Live Action’s lies were indeed officious, then maybe they don’t have all that much to worry about in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s why I don’t think Live Action’s lies can be considered officious–although a remote cause of their actions may have been to decrease the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood, this finality of their actions was remote indeed. More immediately, Live Action was trying to trap a Planned Parenthood worker in order to undermine her (and the entire agency). Their motive was malice towards neighbor, not beneficence (at least as I see it). Sure, Planned Parenthood is guilty of performing abortions, perhaps one of the gravest evils of our day. But it is fundamentally antithetical to Christian charity to “repay evil with evil.” Thus Aquinas says,

If, however, the false signification be about something the knowledge of which affects a man’s good, for instance if it pertain to the perfection of science or to moral conduct, a lie of this description inflicts an injury on one’s neighbor, since it causes him to have a false opinion, wherefore it is contrary to charity, as regards the love of our neighbor, and consequently is a mortal sin.

On this matter, Robert George concludes the issue in the way I think is most appropriate. Christians should not accept evil tactics (lies included) in a “just” fight. In doing so, like in war, the fight is rendered unjust. Christian hope looks to the nature of truth and goodness in themselves as ultimately victorious, and aligns themselves only for causes that fall under their banner. Moreover, if pro-life advocates are to be consistent, they must target their life affirming actions not only to the innocent unborn but also the guilty ones who participate in killing them. It hurts the pro-life cause to be selectively for certain lives and against others. And this is why it is hard to be pro-life—because it is hard to love your enemies. And yet, that is what we must do if our cause is going to prevail. everydaythomist will just let Robert George say it in a much better way than she can:

Catholics certainly, but non-Catholic pro-lifers, too, should reject lying even in the greatest of good causes. What we fight for is just and true, and truth—in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity—is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life—a culture in which, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus prayed, “every child will be protected by law and welcomed in life.”

Professor Tollefsen is, I believe, profoundly right that we must not permit our cause to be sullied by lying. 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. We must not forfeit our standing in the debate as the tellers of truth.

Does this place us at a disadvantage in the struggle? Someone will say: the entire edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies—lies about the the biological status of the human being developing in the womb (“a mere clump of undifferentiated tissue, no different than a mole or a fingernail”); lies about the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade; lies about the so-called “medical necessity” of partial-birth abortions; and on and on. Why should we deny ourselves the use of weapons that many on the other side wield freely? Do we not deeply disadvantage our cause and, in that way, sin against its unborn victims by refusing to lie? Are we “keeping our hands clean” at the price of putting off the day when outfits like Planned Parenthood will be dumped onto the ash heap of history?

I understand the impatience; indeed, I share it. The edifice of abortion is indeed built on a foundation of lies. And in working to protect the victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard. But there are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle. A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth. Lying may produce short term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long term objective. Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth. Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.



14 comments so far

  1. Nik on

    Lies? We are well past that. Anti-abortionists will resort to any tactic to force their morals on others. This now includes legalization of murder of medical staff in South Carolina. Congratulations and welcome to the theocracy!

    • everydaythomist on

      With all due respect, Nik, my post is by an anti-abortionist who is saying exactly the opposite–that NOT every tactic is justified. It would be helpful if the side you align yourself with would find a little room for nuance in describing the side I align myself with in order that me might actually pave the way towards fruitful conversation and dialogue. I know many anti-abortion advocates feel the way I do. We would never, ever, justify the murder of an abortion doctor. So give us a little respect, if you please and don’t lump us all into your dis-utopic theocracy.

      For the record, I think any effort to legalize murder (the state you were referring to is South Dakota, not South Carolina–big difference to me since I hail from the latter) is repugnant. What SD is trying to do is apply the same legal reasoning to those who kill abortion providers that is already applied to those who kill someone who is trying to kill someone else. A robber breaks into my house and holds my wife at knife point. If I shoot him, am I guilty of murder? No, I am acting out of defense, not malice. I’ve addressed this elsewhere in my comments on George Tiller’s murder, but for this line of reasoning to work, the harm has to be imminent. Most abortion doctors are not killed, or tried to be killed, when they are actually in the act of performing an abortion–that is, when the harm to the fetus is imminent. Rather, they are killed when they are walking out of church or into their clinic. Thus, cases of killing like these cannot be justified as “defense of another” but are rather truly cases of “homicide.” SD would do well in this case (and this is perhaps the only time you might hear me say this on this blog) and listen to NARAL on this bill:

      South Dakota lawmakers have the moral obligation to protect reproductive-health care professionals who are providing legal medical services to women,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We call upon the bill’s sponsor to insert language that explicitly protects abortion providers from violence.

      NARAL is wrong in characterizing what they are doing, but they are right that they deserve legal protection. It’s the pro-life thing to do.

      • Nik on

        I stand corrected: South Dakota it is.

        I know *you* are not advocating murder of abortion clinic staff, but I feel it is valid to point out that there are those who do not necessarily make that distinction. What I think is important is to point out what the consequences can be if the anti-abortion movement goes unchecked, and that it does not exist in a vacuum. Outlawing abortion is one thing, but apparently, that is not enough for some. Or, if abortion cannot be outlawed directly, it is apparently fair game to resort to underhanded threats of violence.
        What I am trying to do is make you see the people you share a camp with. Agree or disagree: cling together, swing together. That is worth talking about.

      • everydaythomist on

        There is some truth in “cling together, swing together,” but only some. After all, you are German, and you are a scientist. Should I claim that you subsequently “swing together” with Mengele?

        But you are right that “pro-life” people do get horribly side-tracked in their perhaps narrow-minded pursuit of ending abortion and subsequently sully their character with anti-life actions like homicide. I won’t defend such actions, but I also won’t say that the pro-life cause is doomed because such people corrupt the cause. I think this is one reason why Catholics push Cardinal Bernardin’s and JPII’s “seamless garment” and try to widen their focus on ALL attacks on life as connected. Poverty affects abortion, and other attacks on life like the death penalty, war, and euthanasia are all part of what JPII called a “culture of death.” The fight against one is arguably the fight against all, and vice versa.

      • Nik on

        I do “swing” with Mengele (science regulations), even though I do not “cling”. I do not condone human experiments, nor forced eugenics or murder. Strictly speaking, what Mengele did was morally wrong, not scientifically. Did you know the American government took his results and gave them to the Air Force? I read someplace they featured prominently in jet fighter development, but I am veering off-topic here.

        In a wider sense, it was a also scientifically wrong if you do accept that science can make statements on morality- Mengele counteracted known principles that generate human happiness- I refer to your last post about scientific naturalism here. But the whole bastardization of biology in the Third Reich is a topic in itself.

  2. nohiddenmagenta on

    OK, but I think this is really complicated. Robby, for instance, admits that (1) one can lie by not saying anything at all (indeed, by being silent) and (2) one can tell someone something one knows to be false, with the intend to deceive them, and have it NOT be a lie. He uses the example of inviting someone to a quiet dinner when it is actually going to be a surprise party.

    As Chris Kaczor mentions in his counter-argument at Public Discourse, the catechism used to connect lying with telling falsehoods to those who are owed the truth. I find this to be a much more persuasive line in our tradition. Don’t most people believe that, though it should not be done lightly, one can lie to produce good consequences? Giving children the joy of Santa bringing them presents? Sparing someone the fact that they have performed horribly in the high school musical when they ask how they did? Refusing to give the whereabouts of the Jew you are hiding in your basement to the Nazi at your door? Discrediting organizations which encourage birth control abortions?

    • everydaythomist on

      I buy into the Thomistic line of reasoning on this, that different lies can be of different moral species, and thus may be less grave than others, but are still wrong. But let’s take your consequentialist line of reasoning for a second. I would argue, from your vantage point, that even seemingly good (or at least harmless) lies can still have very bad consequences down the line. Take Santa Claus. How many kids are devastated when they find out he isn’t real? And how many children are habituated into an attitude of materialism and a prosperity-gospel Christmas spirit because of their belief in Santa? Couldn’t we still make Christmas magical by talking about the Saint Nick and the way in which he brought so much joy to people’s lives that we continue to dress up like him? Or even better, about the baby Jesus who was the greatest gift the world could receive. Isn’t Christmas magical enough without a lie?

      Jews in the basement is a whole heck of a lot harder. I’m tempted to say that utilitarians get a point on that one. But as for discrediting organizations which encourage abortions, I want you to take a look at Nik’s comments below (which were not up last night when you responded). Look at his palpable hatred for the pro-life cause and his belief that anti-abortion advocates will resort to any tactic in the name of their cause. He’s wrong, but we who align ourselves with that cause are partially to blame for his attitude by justifying our tactics with consequentialist lines of reasoning, at least in my opinion. Lines of reasoning that have led to the bombing of abortion clinics, to the murder of George Tiller, to the harassment of Planned Parenthood employees, and to the lies of Live Action. Our cause is right, as Robby says, and so with truth on our side, I don’t think we need to add any more corruption to the world than already exists through lies. Hope tells me that truth will win.

      (Hops off soapbox)As a Thomist, I might add one more complexity to this scenario, possibly in your favor. Thomas thinks that stealing is not only not wrong, but is not even stealing, in cases of extreme need since all goods are held in common (private property is not a paramount good for Thomas as it is for us). In that case, we might say that lying is not wrong, it is not even lying, in cases of extreme need, when the “lie” is so officious and the “truth” is so repugnant, since the truth is always directed towards the good. Jews in the basement might be one example. But Thomas, looking at the examples of “good lying” in the Old Testament, still doesn’t come out and justify the lie. Rather, he justifies the dispositional fear of God and love of neighbor that motivated the lie. I am still tempted to do the same for our Nazi hider, and call his lie a venial blip on the radar of self-sacrificial neighborly love. But I don’t see that neighborly love at work in our Live Action folk.

      What are going to be the long-term consequences of this? Anti-abortion folks already thought PP was not reputable. PP supporters already think anti-abortion advocates are not reputable. Have we gotten any farther? Isn’t there just more hostility now on both sides? Are we any closer to “common ground?”

  3. nohiddenmagenta on

    But sounds like you’re making a consequentialist argument, no? Lying about Jews in the basement? Good consequences, obviously. Lying about PP in this case? Bad consequences, people like Nik hate us, we aren’t going to convince those who aren’t already convinced, etc. In fact, isn’t this just what we have in mind when to lie to someone about the surprise party? We think it will produce so much good that we tell them an untruth hoping they will be deceived. Perhaps we tell them the untruth precisely because we know that they would never come to a party thrown in their honor otherwise…that is, we do it even though it is against their preferences…but because we decide it is good for them (and us!) we lie to them about the ‘quiet dinner.’

    • everydaythomist on

      I was using consequentialist reasoning to undermine consequentialism. One of the problems with such theories is that consequences are notoriously difficult to predict (rule-based consequentialist theories attempt to overcome that problem). In many cases, lies produce bad consequences, even if they seem good immediately.

      As with the surprise party, why can’t you just tell your friend that you want to invite him over to your house for “dinner” and leave off the the “quiet” adjective. If you are a person who habitually tries to please your friend, then your motive in this case would not necessarily be deception but rather his pleasure, in which case you seem to have neither an officious lie nor a lie by omission.

      I hope my husband jumps into this debate, because this is the line of reasoning operating in his life. Every year, he makes me a “surprise” anniversary present, but he won’t lie when I ask him about it. He just says nothing or says “it’s a surprise” and then politely requests that I stop asking anything so as to maintain the appropriate mood. Surely there is something to say for this “deontological” attitude! I don’t think I would go so far as this but I would appeal to character and say that the character we pro-lifers need to cultivate is one of charity and neighbor love and even self-sacrifice, and when operating from such a character, lies I think will cease to be part of the “solution” we resort to. And to make the consequentialists happy (since we are both speaking teleoligically), I think the overall consequences will be better too!

      Thanks for challenging me so much on this issue. Great food for thought in my thera-flu induced catatonic state:)

      • Nik on

        I admit I find following your thought process somewhat refreshing. I would also like to say that when I “hate” you, I try to do so lovingly ;-). I think it is worth distinguishing between the person and the message, and I acknowledge your desire to do good.

        I also feel like much of what I do is exemplifying the points you have brought up, but nonetheless: Why is it that those who proclaim moral supremacy (anti-abortionists) are the ones who resort to all the dirty tactics? You are absolutely right that this devastates your credibility. It also makes it seem like you do not care about the women and their suffering at all, you just want to enforce your religious dogma. Yes, I am arguing the utilitarian position here.

        You can trace the same pattern of deceit though all religiously charged agendas- like getting “Intelligent Design” onto science curricula, end of life issues, etc.

        For example, I think it is very clear that reducing the rate of unwanted pregnancies directly correlates with a reduction in abortions. So why is it that when it comes to Sex-ed and easy access to contraceptives, we have to fight the same religious conservatives that make up much of the pro-life camp? You would think pro-lifers should be out in the schools just handing out those condoms and pleading with people to use them. Or is it maybe really just about enforcing the dogma and “being right”?

      • Nik on

        Oh and Beth: I hope you feel better soon!

      • everydaythomist on

        Thanks, Nik! I would be remiss if I did not refer you to a great resource: my friend’s blog No Hidden Magenta, which tries to find the common ground I think both of us seek. Charlie is a great example of someone trying to get past deceptive labels to the real heart of the moral issues we are so concerned about and seek real viable solutions. He is also a pro-life Catholic utilitarian who is a relative fan of much of the work of Peter Singer, often considered the arch-enemy of pro-life Catholics. If the future of the Church has anything to do with Charlie’s work, it is a much brighter future indeed! I encourage you to keep challenging people like us, not to undermine the very foundations of the church, which will make us resistant to what you have to say, but to make the praxis of the church better and more consistent with the moral claims we should appeal to. If we can put aside the hostility and the burning desire to “make our side right,” maybe we can actually work together for the change that we would like to see, like reducing the number of abortions, protecting women from poverty and other injustices, and fostering a culture in which women, men, and children are protected.

        Also, I should mention that, largely inspired by Charlie, a new network of Catholic bloggers is in the making that will strive to embody the same principles of tolerance and dialogue you see in Charlie’s blog and (*I hope*) my own. Stay tuned . . .

  4. James on

    I was of two minds about this, but you now have me convinced: Live Action’s tactics have an immoral object. Keeping in mind Aquinas’s argument that lying is always evil, my counterargument was to claim that perhaps what Live Action was doing was a kind of “Socratic method” (to use the term very loosely) in which they were simply presenting a kind of in-person thought experiment, which elicited aloud the position that PP already held, viz., we’re willing to break the law on behalf of Moloch.

    However, your post made me realize that in so doing, they were causing the PP workers to sin by getting them to give consent of their wills to this position, albeit in a fake situation.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks James. One of the things I teach my ethics students comes from the Catechism on conscience where one of the guiding rules in discerning how to follow your conscience (in addition to the Golden Rule and never doing any evil that good may result) is that one’s neighbor should never be induced to stumble through your actions.

      1789 Some rules apply in every case:

      – One may never do evil so that good may result from it;

      – the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”

      – charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ.”57 Therefore “it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble.”

      Live Action seems to be guilty of doing exactly this, getting a neighbor to stumble rather than helping them discern what is truly good.

      Glad to hear your thoughts on this.

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