Stung! The ethics of entrapment

Is it OK to use deceit in the service of a cause you believe in?
Carolyn Moynihan | Feb 4 2011 | comment  

Lila RoseOh, the joys of Schadenfreude. When the American pro-life group Live Action released a videotape on YouTube earlier this week showing a Planned Parenthood clinic manager describing herself as a “partner in crime” with a pimp and a prostitute, there could have been few opponents of abortion who did not feel a surge of satisfaction at the unmasking of an old foe. That would have been only half the gratification, however; the rest would come from knowing that this was the work, not of battle-weary pro-life stalwarts, but of the eager, active young people who have rallied to Live Action and the pro-life cause.

In the style established by its leader Lila Rose (pictured), the organisation sent a man and a woman posing as sex traffickers to a New Jersey clinic (and several others) where they discussed how they could secure STD testing, abortions and contraception for underage girls who were illegal immigrants -- in other words, sex slaves. The manager was incredibly, indeed, criminally co-operative. Planned Parenthood has lost no time in sacking her and denouncing her behaviour to the media, but nothing can change the fact that this is a damning evidence for Live Action’s “Expose Planned Parenthood” campaign, whose aim is to end federal funding of PP.

On further reflection, though, “stings” appear to be a troubling development in the pro-life movement, involving ethically dubious behaviour: pretence and even plain lying. It is a game that two can play -- and will. A lot of unsavoury characters will be gunning for Lila Rose and her friends. People will try to infiltrate her movement. She will find it hard to trust people. The finances of her group will be examined line by line to look for dubious connections and so on.

There are other ethical questions. Since the video is evidence of a serious crime by the PP office manager, why isn’t the woman’s face blocked out? Why is her name given? Even pro-abortionists have legal rights.

And what if the boot was on the other foot -- if it was someone whose values and ethics were on the correct side of the moral divide, so to speak, and who was subjected to entrapment?

Take, for example, the following story, which I was writing when the PP sting broke.

Two weeks ago a psychotherapist was due to appear before a panel of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to answer charges of misconduct. The case has been adjourned owing to the intimidation of one of her key witnesses but Lesley Pilkington, 60, still faces the possibility of being stripped of her accreditation after treating a man who said he wanted to be cured of his homosexuality -- and who then complained to the BACP because she tried to do just that.

Mrs Pilkington, like a significant number of mental health professionals, believes that sexual orientation is not unchangeable: one in six in the UK, according to a 2009 report has been involved in such therapy. She believes that same-sex attraction is not something innate but develops in a person because of their upbringing and other environmental factors. She believes those things not only because they coincide with her Christian faith but because there is scientific and empirical evidence to support them. And she has a very understandable motive for concerning herself with the issue: her own 29-year-old son is homosexual.

Patrick Strudwick Photo: Teri Pengilley / The IndependentPatrick Strudwick, the client who complained about her, is a gay activist and a journalist who vehemently rejects the idea that sexual orientation can be changed. In fact, he runs a campaign called Stop Conversion Therapy Taskforce. A couple of years ago he went to a conference in the UK run by the US organisation The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) on reparative therapy. There Mr Strudwick approached Mrs Pilkington and told her he was unhappy with his homosexual lifestyle and that he wanted to leave it; he then requested treatment for his same-sex attraction. (He also dealt with a male psychiatrist.) She took him on, advising him that she always prayed at the beginning and end of the sessions. He said that was just what he wanted.

In May 2009 he went to her house for the first of two sessions with a dictaphone taped to his stomach. He recorded that and a second session conducted over the phone. He did a similar thing with a male therapist. He gave transcripts of the recordings to Professor Michael King of University College London, the academic who led the survey of mental health professionals referred to above and a declared opponent of reparative therapy. He then told the two therapists who he was and what Dr King had said.

Next Mr Strudwick lodged formal complaints with the BACP about both therapists, and subsequently published an account of his therapy sessions in The Independent. It included this obliging comment from Dr King:

This is grossly improper practice," he told me. "She's imposing prayer and using evidence-free techniques. The whole approach towards the subject of sexual abuse is extremely unprofessional. Leading [and] suggestion in a therapeutic situation is the absolute antithesis of what an exploration of sexual abuse should be about. It's the base of many of these false memory syndromes. She should not be able to get referrals from a GP. Her membership of the BACP should be immediately revoked.

According to a press report, the disciplinary letter she received from her professional body accuses Mrs Pilkington of “praying to God to heal him [Strudwick] of his homosexuality” and of having an “agenda that homosexuality is wrong and that gay people can change and that you allegedly attempted to inflict these views on him”.


Are these two cases comparable? They both involve subterfuge, and by campaigners committed to a cause. Live Action is convinced that PP is dangerous; Mr Strudwick is convinced that “conversion therapists”, as he calls them, are dangerous. In either case, the only way to produce concrete evidence is to go under-cover.

Or is it? With PP, yes; no-one is going to volunteer information about illegal activities. The therapist on the other hand was open about her approach; her client already knew her attitude to homosexuality and that she would use prayer as part of the therapy with someone who identified as a believer (“I tell her that I'm tired of meaningless sexual encounters and that I have rediscovered my faith”) -- the rest was detail. His deception, however, did provide the bonus of material for self-glorifying journalism.

The great difference between the two cases, of course, is that one involved criminal activity and one merely a controversial therapy based on controversial views.

Offering therapy to homosexuals who say they want to change is not a crime. Believing that homosexuals can change is not a crime. Leading them in prayer when they say they agree to it is not a crime. Unless specifically ruled out by professional guidelines these things are not unethical (I have searched the BACP Ethical Framework and cannot find the words “prayer” or “sexual orientation” in it).

Furthermore her assumptions are not -- despite what Mr Strudwick, Professor King, and various professional groups say -- “evidence-free”. There are real people walking around who have changed their sexual orientation. The jury is still out on this very important question and anyone who wants to exclude the possibility of change should have their own ethics examined.

But offering so-called “sexual health” services to a trafficker of underage girls is, to repeat, seriously criminal stuff. PP says the behaviour filmed at its affiliate is “very isolated”. That's hard to believe. Live Action says it has other evidence of PP clinics’ willingness to aid and abet the sexual exploitation of minors and young women.

Sex trafficking, along with drug dealing and paedophile networking, is something that mainstream journalists, not to mention the police, regard as a matter of public interest justifying under-cover tactics. They are used much more widely than that, especially by the British press, but even there the tide of professional opinion is turning against entrapment journalism.

To quote Benjamin C. Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post at the time of the Watergate scandal, “In a day when we are spending thousands of man hours uncovering deception, we simply cannot afford to deceive.”

So, what about entrapment in the service of human life and dignity? Somehow the question seems to answer itself, and, for this writer, the answer is not positive.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Carolyn Moynihan and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow MercatorNet
MercatorNet RSS feed
subscribe to newsletter
Sections and Blogs
Family Edge
Sheila Reports
Reading Matters
Demography Is Destiny
From the Editor
contact us
our ideals
our People
our contributors
Mercator who?
partner sites
audited accounts
advice for writers
privacy policy
New Media Foundation
L1 488 Botany Rd
Alexandria NSW 2015
+61 2 8005 8605
skype: mercatornet

© New Media Foundation