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How to Make a Hidden-Camera Movie of an Abortion Clinic

Analyzing the pro-life movement's dominant form of self-expression

The anti-abortion movement's defining medium used to be the poster, typically featuring a misleading photo of a stillborn fetus much older than most states' abortion laws allowed. These days, it's probably the undercover video. The tactic has grown popular in recent years thanks to Lila Rose, the chipper, camera-wielding 24-year-old whose home movies have made headlines regularly since 2006, most recently this week.

Once again, Rose has shown that she understands the news cycle. Her biggest campaign, in 2011, piggy-backed on Congressman Mike Pence’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood; this time around, she’s borrowing momentum from Kermit Gosnell’s trial, asking doctors to describe late-term abortions in an effort to prove they’re all as comfortable killing babies born alive as he was. So far, it appears none of the unwitting subjects has ever botched an abortion and ended up with a live infant—an error that is almost unheard of.

Rose isn't the only anti-abortion activist doing “investigations.” Operation Rescue, the extremist group that has been accused of encouraging the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas, has employed this strategy since the 1990s. Rose first got the idea from a large-scale “sting operation” in 2002, the work of Texas-based Life Dynamics, which consisted of more than 800 staged phone calls. (Like some of Rose’s early projects, the Life Dynamics calls sought to prove that clinics covered up statutory rape.) 

By all accounts, documentarianism is not among the pro-life movement’s most efficient tactics. Even Rose’s highly publicized oeuvre has provoked no more than reprimands, or in some cases firings of clinic workers. Live Action can’t claim responsibility for any legislation, or even clinic closures. These videos may be little more—but no less—than the pro-choice movement's current, angry form of self-expression. Here’s a quick how-to guide to help you distinguish some of the genre's finer points, for the next time pro-lifers cry "gotcha" on tape.

1. Ask leading questions.

A page from the Life Dynamics book: During their “child predators” sting, an operative would call a clinic pretending to be an underage girl terrified of what would happen to her older boyfriend if she came into the clinic. The receptionist would reassure her that the abortion would be kept confidential (or, in one case, a receptionist advised the girl to keep her boyfriend's age secret). Though this seems a little shocking, it wasn't illegal (clinicians, doctors, and nurses, but not receiptionists, are required by law to report statutory rape and sexual abuse), and parading the response as a moral outrage missed the complexity of the receptionist's situation. “If you’re concerned about incest, statutory rape or abuse, the most important thing is to get a child to see a doctor,” a lawyer from the California Women’s Law Center told Salon at the time, defending the receptionists' impulse to get the girls into a clinic however possible. “There’s nothing reportable about an anonymous phone call, because realistically what would the police do with that information?”

Rose writes equally pointed scripts. In 2008, she campaigned to prove that Planned Parenthood is “exterminating the black community.” Her actors called clinics and asked if they could give a donation earmarked for African Americans (a desire no more racist than, say, specifying eligibility for an academic fellowship), and once the person on the other end of the line had agreed to accept the donation, the caller would drop a detestable motivation: “There’s definitely way too many Black people in Ohio, so I am just trying to do my part.”

2. Be intimidating.

Sometimes, the sole aim of the recording is to humiliate and terrify the person caught on tape. Such was the case earlier this spring when Operation Rescue president Troy Newman called one of the doctors who is reopening Tiller’s clinic in Kansas despite death threats. He posted the conversation on his organization’s site, gleefully pointing out that the young woman had “been hoping not to be mentioned by name.” Protestors seeking to frighten and harrass patients as they enter clinics have also been known to take videos to add to their victims' sense of stigma and shame.

3. Edit the bejeezus out of everything.

This is the key to Live Action’s latest set of videos. In a highly edited clip from a Bronx clinic, the young undercover agent asks the person behind the desk what would happen if the fetus came out “twitching” and is told it would be put in a jar of solution that would “make it stop.” But after years of criticism for her enthusiastic editing, Rose in 2011 began posting full versions of her tapes online. In the complete recording of the clinic visit, it’s clear that the woman who mentions the “jar” is only assigned to take the patient’s medical history; she is not an abortion counselor. The actual counselor tells the woman in no uncertain terms that if her baby is born alive, the doctor “will do everything he can to save it.” The director of the clinic has since said the first employee was misinformed.

4. Parody the pro-choice message.

Sometimes it seems as if pro-lifers and pro-choicers live on different planets, and never more so than when abortion opponents juxtapose what they consider pro-choice "propaganda" with their own hyperbolic messaging. Comparing a picture of a fetus aborted late in term (rare) with a picture of a healthy premature baby (also rare) is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It raises real moral questions, but it also holds a lot of shock value. Now, pro-lifers are pulling the same trick in video form. In 2011, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform spliced together a video made by Northland Family Planning Centers that portrays abortion as a "normal decision with gory "video cuts showing the reality of abortion." The judge dismissed the case, saying, "The obvious intent of CBR’s video was parody and critique, which is protected use of copyrighted material."

5. Cite irrelevant historical events.

The pro-life movement has shown no qualms about co-opting a variety of historical figures and events. They go after feminist heros, for example suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who has been claimed as the inspirtation for a national, virulently anti-abortion organization even though her biographers insist there's no evidence she opposed abortion—or even though about it much at all. And they talk a lot about genocides. The Jewish community expressed displeasure last year when pro-lifers in Kansas announced their intention to build a memorial to aborted infants modeled on Jerusalem's Wailing Wall to evoke a holocaust theme. 

Rose, for her part, makes frequent references to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for equality (MLK's niece, pro-life activist Alveda King, has endorsed Rose's work). In an interview she gave for the CNN documentary "Right on the Edge," she said the civil rights leader had inspired her to be a "creative extremist." Her video "Here's The Blood," aimed at "educating our world about what abortion really is," begins with a clip of him speaking: "we cannot tolerate the shedding of innocent blood."

6. Go for the pity vote.

If you don’t get the footage you want, blame it on the evil “pro-aborts” (actual Operation Rescue slang). This is especially effective when the person taking a video on her phone is an old lady—the valued pro-life trope of the elderly, self-sacrificing matriarch who spends her days picketing in the blistering sun. This March, a woman tried to film an ambulance leaving a Planned Parenthood in Delaware, and a clinic worker took her phone. Operation Rescue placed the incident prominently on its website, under the headline “Praying Catholic Grandma Violently Attacked at Planned Parenthood While Filming Botched Abortion Incident.”

When all is said and done, many have speculated that abortion providers and the mainstream media alike are wise to the games of Rose and her ilk, and coverage of her antics has dwindled over the years. But it’s always hard to measure how art influences politics, and Rose was optimistic about hers when I interviewed her Wednesday. “It’s been amazing ... to see our videos passed more on YouTube than any other campaign we’ve done,” she said brightly, “and it’s only a little over a week into the campaign.”