Joanna Weiss

The ‘sting’

If Lila Rose’s real concern is abortion, targeting Planned Parenthood is the wrong way to go

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / February 13, 2011

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IT’S NO surprise that conservatives love Lila Rose. She has the soul of Phyllis Schlafly in the body of Miley Cyrus.

Rose is the camera-ready, girlish-voiced, 22-year-old antiabortion activist who founded a group called LiveAction. Its specialty is taking undercover videos inside Planned Parenthood clinics; Rose has posed, for instance, as a 13-year-old who claimed to be impregnated by her 31-year-old boyfriend.

In a new series of videos released this month, Rose sent a man into a dozen Planned Parenthood clinics posing as a pimp, and asking how he could get abortions for his prostitutes. In Perth Amboy, N.J., she struck gold: a clinic manager gave appalling advice about how to bypass laws that protect minors. (The day the video was released, the manager was fired.)

Whether you call this citizen journalism or high-tech entrapment likely depends on your politics; Rose has been called a modern-day Upton Sinclair, but she’s also an aspiring actress, and it’s not hard to view her undercover work, and the attendant TV interviews, as an extended audition tape.

Rose also represents a new wave of conservative activists who understand the power of a sensational story. She got training through the Leadership Institute, a D.C.-based group that seeds college campuses with conservative groups. And her inspiration a nd mentor is James O’Keefe, a former Leadership Institute employee who conducted secret videos of the community group ACORN — posing as a pimp himself, complete with a fedora and fur jacket — and managed to get the group stripped of federal funding. (He was also arrested last year for entering Senator Mary Landrieu’s office, in a different costume, intending to tamper with her phones.)

Morton Blackwell, the Leadership Institute’s founder, told me last week that O’Keefe and Rose have taken at least one of his lessons to heart: Put out your negative news in increments, hurting the enemy further by keeping the story alive. With the drawn-out release of her Planned Parenthood tapes, Rose has increased her media profile, and helped to jeopardize Planned Parenthood’s federal funding in a newly hostile House of Representatives.

But who, precisely, is she helping and who is she hurting? Outside of Perth Amboy, after all, there’s no real smoking gun in Rose’s Planned Parenthood tapes. It’s true that clinic workers didn’t rush to make citizens’ arrests of the make-believe pimp. But after he left, supervisors contacted authorities, and in one case trailed the guy into the parking lot to seek out his license plate number, says Stuart Schear, Planned Parenthood’s national spokesman. And Planned Parenthood wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder, warning that this was either an interstate prostitution ring or an elaborate right-wing hoax.

Schear also says Planned Parenthood is boosting its training efforts for clinic staff. And if Rose’s scrutiny makes the group extra-vigilant about reporting suspected crimes, that’s probably a good thing, overall.

But let’s not pretend that sex trafficking is Rose’s real concern. Her target is abortion. And if she is truly interested in reducing the number of abortions performed — something most people who label themselves pro-choice would agree is a worthy goal — targeting Planned Parenthood is precisely the wrong way to do it.

The group’s annual $79 million in Title X funds, now in the crosshairs of House Republicans, wouldn’t go to abortions, which already are barred from federal funding except in the case of rape, incest, or life endangerment — and which make up only 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood performs. Title X provides low-income women with breast and cervical cancer screening and STD treatment and prevention. And with contraception, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies that create a demand for abortion in the first place.

That distinction may be lost to people who are eager to give Planned Parenthood a black eye. And conservatives must see poetic justice in Rose’s methods, notes Brian Anse Patrick, a communications professor at the University of Toledo who has studied the media treatment of gun advocates. “I imagine they suspect that they’re the victims of media bias,’’ Patrick said, “and they probably love seeing this.’’

Indeed, if you’re waging a take-no-prisoners brand of ideological warfare, Rose’s approach is a smashing success. She’s also doing a brilliant job of turning herself into a star.

But promoting sensible policy? To protect vulnerable women? Sounds nice, but as Rose knows, that will never get you your close-up.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at