Recently in Britain, a mystery shopper requested an abortion for a “beach body” over the summer, and was sent abortion pills by a seemingly unfazed abortion provider. This was only the latest in a long line of pro-life stings, of which the most famous were no doubt the US Planned Parenthood stings, in which abortionists took the bait from a supposed tissue purchaser, discussing with chilling candor the harvesting of fetal parts.

To compare such stings with a doctor making abortion referrals may seem eccentric, even perverse. Many of us admire the courage and tenacity of pro-life activists like David Daleiden who run real risks of crippling fines, or indeed, incarceration. More importantly, pro-life stings are not only courageous but have the morally unexceptionable aims of highlighting egregious abuses, discrediting abortionists, and hopefully saving some lives. In contrast, abortion referrals, however reluctant, normally evince at the very least a dismaying lack of commitment to saving lives and often an actual intention that lives be ended, if not by the doctor who refers.

However, these two connections with the moral evil of abortion—the pro-life sting and the abortion referral—do have some uncomfortable similarities. To see why, we need to step back a moment, and ask very generally what morality is all about.

Ends, Means, and Ethics 

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Is morality all about results? Not exactly: as the philosopher J.L.A. Garcia reminds us, morality is about “inputs” to our actions from our own mental lives, as opposed to “outputs,” that is, what happens in the world. Morality is about the contents of the heart. True, these contents include any aims we have to do good, such as changing hearts and minds, protecting women and children from abortion, and so on. However, all our aims count in assessing a course of action, not just our further aims (and other factors can be morally conclusive, too). “The end does not justify the means”: any bad means ensures we are acting wrongly, whatever our “end” or further aim.

Many readers will agree that it is wrong to perform abortions. But why exactly is it wrong? Not just because a baby dies: a “failed” abortion, in which abortion was intended but the baby lives, is morally no better than a “successful” abortion, even if it is hugely better in other ways. Conversely, a truly medical act in which the baby dies as a side effect, as in the classic case of removing a cancerous uterus, causes death just as surely as abortion, but is not an abortion or otherwise morally excluded.

It is the aim to end life and/or pregnancy before viability that makes an act an abortion. Moreover, these aims are morally excluded from the time they are first formulated to their final execution. It is wrong for abortion providers to hang up their sign, as well as to pick up their instruments and begin the abortion. It is wrong for the woman to make the first as well as the second appointment; to book the taxi as well as to lie on the table. From the first, perhaps conditional, intention to do or have the abortion, right through to the final preparations and the actual procedure, every step deliberately geared to abortion, by anyone involved, is itself morally wrong.

The point is not whether abortion providers or women seeking abortions are culpable for their actions, but whether the choices involved are morally unjustified – in which case, we should surely not invite them.


To say “morally wrong” is to say nothing at all about the personal culpability of those making the relevant choices. Many factors can diminish our responsibility for our wrongful choices, and those of us who regret these, in any area of our lives, can take too much as well as too little responsibility for them. In the present context, however, the point is not whether abortion providers or women seeking abortions are culpable for their actions, but whether the choices involved are morally unjustified — in which case, we should surely not invite them.

Formal Cooperation and Abortion Referrals

Intending that others act wrongly is itself wrong: in technical terms, it is “formal” cooperation in evil/wrongdoing. While “material,” unintentional cooperation is often unavoidable (many things we do in effect assist the wrongdoing of others), “formal,” intentional cooperation has traditionally been held to be itself absolutely wrong. If it is wrong for you to make some choice, even in good faith, I should not be engineering that bad moral outcome. That merely means that two people will be acting wrongly, one perhaps well aware of the crime of the other in which, however, she herself is now complicit.

To return to abortion referrals: if abortion is wrong objectively, and if this is also true of formal cooperation in wrongful acts, then it follows that a doctor may not intend that another doctor perform or arrange an abortion. Nor may the doctor intend that the woman, however non-culpably, form the intention to get an abortion from a colleague. If the first doctor mentions, factually and in general terms, the right to a second opinion, to defuse the situation while offering sympathy and help with the pregnancy, this should not be with the intention, however conditional, that the woman plan to get an abortion elsewhere. Indeed, that applies even if the doctor knows that the woman will not in fact be able to obtain an abortion elsewhere (say, because her pregnancy is very advanced).

In other words, the doctor should not be intending that anyone form a bad intention, whether the woman herself or another doctor. No one should ever engage in such formal cooperation with wrongdoing, however good the motivation (the doctor may, for example, want the woman to leave the room, thus allowing other urgent consultations). The end does not justify the means where the means are absolutely morally excluded. Good ends should be sought by good means only, such as offering the woman the best, most positive consultation possible in the time reasonably available.

It should be clear that the sting is designed to elicit a wrongful intention from abortion clinic staff: a choice wrong in itself, if not one resulting in later wrongful choices.


Formal Cooperation and Pro-Life Stings

Which brings us back to stings. It should be clear that the sting is designed to elicit a wrongful intention from abortion clinic staff: a choice wrong in itself, if not one resulting in later wrongful choices. Asking for an abortion for a “beach body” is tempting clinic staff to, once again, arrange an abortion—and moreover, an abortion of a repellently trivial kind. Asking an abortion doctor to supply you with fetal tissue from future victims, and watching her describe how she might do that, is asking the doctor to plan to perform an abortion (where all such plans are necessarily immoral) and to exploit the baby for financial gain.

Note the difference between such an invitation to form a new wrongful choice, and the invitation, journalist-style, simply to describe existing procedures. The second invitation may well be permissible, given that it is not obviously wrong to describe one’s past or even ongoing wrongful actions. The first case, in contrast, is “tempting” an abortionist, however morally compromised already, to make new heinous plans. One might think here of police entrapment, such as female police officers impersonating prostitutes to entrap curb-crawlers: perhaps those entrapped were already seeking to solicit, but that is no reason to invite new acts of solicitation.

In short, our concerns over stings should not be limited to concerns over lying, a real but separate moral issue. Lying, as opposed to mere deceit, should be avoided:  it is itself intrinsically wrong. But no less important is the need to avoid formal, i.e. deliberate, cooperation in the wrongful acts of others, especially via proactive invitations. Potential gains, however attractive, should not blind us to substantial moral roadblocks here.

Potential gains, however attractive, should not blind us to substantial moral roadblocks.


Using Sting-Obtained Material

And finally, may information or footage immorally obtained be used in advocacy by other pro-life activists? I think it sometimes may, though with some caveats. Benefiting from past, even recent wrongdoing is not always wrong; we do this legitimately in other areas. Photographs wrongly taken by those committing atrocities in wartime are rightly used to highlight such atrocities. Publications derived from wrongful research are rightly cited, and not just to call for more ethical research. Similarly, it may well be right to use information wrongly obtained by pro-life stings, given how effective such use may be in drawing attention to the humanity of young innocent lives and their iniquitous extinction.

What we must not do, however, is give the impression that we support the sting itself, which in public contexts should at best be neutrally reported, even if the information it yields is not. In pro-life contexts, it is imperative not to give the impression that stings are morally justified; but even in public contexts, some kind of distancing phrase may be appropriate if it is not distracting or over-harsh. Least of all should we be involved in the planning of stings, however well-motivated—for example, by promising to publicize their results. Abortion providers too have souls, as do sting operatives: whatever the gains, we should not be leading either astray. The need to avoid immoral choices applies right across the board: to “us” as well as to “them.”