The grainy video, filmed in Bloomington, Ind., last year, features a young woman with bleach-blonde hair fidgeting in her chair. As haunting music loops over her small voice, she tells a Planned Parenthood worker that she’s 13 years old, almost 14. She mentions an older boyfriend. The worker says Indiana law dictates that people 13 years old or under who have had intercourse must be reported to Child Protective Services. The timestamp in the corner of the screen skips back and forth. The video lingers accusingly on a clip, edited to repeat multiple times, of the worker saying she didn’t hear the boyfriend’s age. It fades into black.
Lila Rose, the 21-year-old woman behind an undercover video campaign against Planned Parenthood, as well as the actress in most of her recordings, is scheduled to travel to Minnesota to speak at a benefit dinner for Pro-Life Action Ministries in Brooklyn Center on Monday.
Following the successful bipartisan push to defund ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after a similar undercover video campaign, abortion opponents are refocusing their energy on Planned Parenthood. Only last weekend, following a speech in which she said she wished abortions in the United States would be conducted literally in “public squares,” Rose hosted a breakout session at the 2009 Value Voters Summit entitled “Defunding Planned Parenthood.” Participants were urged to “learn from people, like you, who have successfully stopped Planned Parenthood funding in their communities.”
Rose is a superstar in the anti-abortion movement, backing a California ballot measure to constitutionally expand the legal definition of a human to include fetuses and rubbing shoulders with Republican luminaries like Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The videos she produces are designed to fuel allegations that Planned Parenthood staff neglect to report statutory rape, as many state laws require. With only nine videos in her holster, her organization, Live Action, has managed to threaten some government funding for Planned Parenthood in Indiana, California and Tennessee – despite the fact that none of those organizations has ever used such funds for abortions.
Rose’s work faces criticism from reproductive-rights advocates who allege the videos are edited manipulatively and feature non-medical staff. It also raises ethical questions about secretly videotaping workers and the mainstream media’s careless treatment of the videos.
“Defunding Planned Parenthood”
Kathi Di Nicola, spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota (PPMNS) said her organization wasn’t threatened by Rose’s impending visit.
“Serving the reproductive needs of our patients is our number-one priority, day in and day out,” Di Nicola said. “We’ve done that for 81 years in Minnesota and we’re not intimidated by those who attempt to undermine our work.”
Representatives from both PPMNS and Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) declined to comment about security measures prompted by Rose’s undercover videos or her presence in the state this week.
There’s been little direct public response to Rose’s operation from Planned Parenthood, which is, after all, no stranger to criticism. Their rejoinders have been limited to some general statements and a pair of now-withdrawn lawsuits in California.
“Ultimately, their modus operandi has been to try to minimize the scandal because clearly they want to keep operating as they are,” Rose said in an interview with the Minnesota Independent.
Planned Parenthood is accustomed to taking heat from anti-abortion activists, despite the fact that only a small proportion of the services the organization provides involve abortion, said Linnea House, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.
The tactic’s goal “is to get [a worker] to say something that the general public would disagree with,” House said. “It seems like what they’re trying to do is get Planned Parenthood defunded.”
Rose claims to have cost Planned Parenthood $1.1 million nationwide because of her videos. In June 2009, the Tennessee state legislature worked to revoke Planned Parenthood’s preferential status for federal Title X Family Planning funds because of outrage fueled by one of Rose’s videos that purported to show a Planned Parenthood worker telling an underage girl how to avoid statutory rape charges for her older boyfriend.
Representatives of Planned Parenthood in the greater Memphis area say the final legislation won’t really affect their funding, but that it’s more of a symbolic vote.
Rose also said her videos have led to the firing or other reprimanding of Planned Parenthood workers. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America declined to comment on specific staffing issues related to the videos, but in an e-mailed statement PPFA spokesman Diane Quest said, “Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers take all claims [of employee misconduct], regardless of their source, seriously.”
Quest said the organization is dedicated to protecting teens, and making sure they receive the medical care they need.
“Millions of parents trust that their teens will get accurate information and quality care at Planned Parenthood health centers, and affiliate staff work exceptionally hard to maintain that trust,” Quest said. “In the rare cases when an affiliate health center determines that a staff person hasn’t met Planned Parenthood’s high standards of employment, swift action is taken – action that can include retraining and other steps.”
But a leaked e-mail from Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region CEO Barry Chase to state legislators in April pointed out that the worker featured in Rose’s Memphis video was a translator, not a nurse or caregiver. That’s another common criticism of Rose’s videos; it’s often unclear who she is filming and in what context. In the e-mail, Chase refers to the Memphis video as “highly edited.”
It’s also not clear that she’s ever sat down with Planned Parenthood’s trained nurses, instead focusing on clerical or other workers. According to the PPFA, Rose never had official patient appointments or filled out any paper work.
Biased media or media bias?
Since the ACORN videos broke, the tactic of secretly videotaping the political opponents of right-wing activists has quickly gained mainstream conservative approval.
“It’s definitely a trend or even beyond a trend, it’s a growing number of people that are not just listening to the mainstream media anymore, or what used to be the mainstream media, and instead are determined to really find the facts for themselves,” Rose told the Minnesota Independent.
Such undisclosed investigations can be ethically troubling, said Jane Kirtley, professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota and member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.
“Just because you’re doing something that involves hidden camera surveillance doesn’t mean you’re doing it for journalistic purposes,” Kirtley said.
In traditional journalism circles, she said, the use of undercover cameras is regarded as a last resort, and in many states it can be illegal.
“There is this aspect of it which troubles people, the old question: Do the ends justify the means?” Kirtley said. “If you’re going to be uncovering misconduct on the part of somebody else, does that justify your engaging in something that some people think is inappropriate, like using deception?”
Kirtley said Rose’s videos, depending on how they are done, could potentially fit into the media’s watchdog role, which has often been fulfilled or supplemented by advocacy groups.
Rose, who wavers between referring to herself as a “journalist” and “activist,” readily admits that her aim is dramatic effect, shrugging off criticism that undercover videos can land her in ethically murky water. (Aside from a stint publishing a campus magazine at UCLA, Rose has no formal journalistic experience.)
“Those are diversions from the real subject at hand, which is that young girls are being abused sexually and taken in for secret abortions,” Rose said. “A lot of times, [these criticisms] are shameful diversions because what those people are saying basically is any undercover journalism and any work like this is just not OK.”
Rose points out that mainstream media shows like NBC Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” use her form of undercover journalism. In fact, Rose turns the tables on mainstream media outlets, accusing them of political bias for not following up on her investigations.
“People get uncomfortable with certain organizations being exposed and the embarrassment it causes them because of the true horrific things that are happening behind the closed doors of those organizations,” Rose said. “They’re willing to sacrifice the public being truly informed as they should be for their own political agenda. As a journalist I find that sickening and I think that’s not right; I think the public deserves to know.”
But Kirtley said the mainstream media’s big problem resides in its rush to air videos like Rose’s without providing appropriate disclaimers or context.
“I’m not suggesting that news organizations of any stripe shouldn’t use user-generated content. There are many times where that’s absolutely appropriate and enriches the whole news-gathering and reporting experience,” Kirtley said. “If you’re taking material from a group that has an agenda, you have an obligation to be absolutely clear in rebroadcasting the material that it comes from them and you’re reporting it because of the fact that they did it and not because the content is necessarily accurate.”
Rose said her organization has prepared other videos for 2009. Although Rose won’t disclose how many undercover videos her organization has shot or where they were filmed, she said that a 2009 video based in Minnesota is a possibility.
Despite her intense involvement in anti-abortion events and activism, Rose said her mission to “defund Planned Parenthood” isn’t about abortion.
“Many [young women] are manipulated by partners or by older men […] into getting these abortions, so definitely we’re staunchly against [abortion],” Rose said. “But even on a purely organizational level, the way that Planned Parenthood operates in accepting tax money and in manipulating women and assessing the sexual abuse cover-up is reason enough to stop taxpayer funds going to the organization.”
Linnea House of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota said the loss of any funding for the organization would hurt Planned Parenthood’s mission as the largest provider of family planning and reproductive health care in the country.
“This is basically another tool for [anti-abortion activists] to be doing some fear-mongering,” House said. “Doing these undercover exposés on an organization that is internationally and nationally known as a provider is a tactic to be used by those who don’t have a whole lot of options.”