The Story: A whistleblower at Planned Parenthood was recently awarded $3 million for wrongful termination. When should Christians consider such whistleblowing to be moral?
The Background: Last week a jury in Arizona awarded a former Planned Parenthood employee $3 million after she claimed she was wrongfully terminated for alerting her supervisors to unsafe medical practices at the clinics where she worked.
According to the Arizona Republic, Mayra Rodriguez was working for several Arizona abortion clinics when she questioned business practices and made numerous complaints against abortionists on staff. Court records note that Rodriguez was concerned about the “substantial health, welfare, and safety risks to these patients, as well as the substantial risk to the health, safety, and welfare of the inevitable future of [Planned Parenthood Arizona] patients.” An example from the lawsuit is a trend of reports concerning patients who had complications after abortion procedures, and experienced bleeding and cramps—all of whom had been treated by the same doctor. She also pointed out an incident involving a failure to report that a minor with an adult partner was seeking an abortion.
After reporting the incident she received a memo giving her a “final warning” about her job performance. The memo alleged several deficiencies in areas such as financial policy, inventory control, performance of daily duties, and inaccurate communication. Rodriquez was later fired after a supervisor claimed narcotics were found inside her desk. Rodriguez says the medication was planted in her desk, was not a narcotic, and that it was common practice for staff to store medication that way before transferring it to the clinic’s purchasing department for handling and disposal.
After being fired, Rodriguez contacted Abby Johnson, who runs And Then There Were None, which helps abortion workers who want to leave the industry. Johnson told World magazine that Rodriquez had not yet joined the pro-life cause and wants to “focus on the fact that Planned Parenthood has been harming women and that what they talk about in the media is the complete opposite of what they do in their clinics.”
What It Means: Rodriguez is an example of a “whistleblower,” an employee who alleges wrongdoing by his or her employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people. In the United States there are a number of laws that protect whistleblowers, under certain circumstances, from retaliation (i.e., an action which would dissuade a reasonable employee from raising a concern about a possible violation). But the question of whether whistleblowing is always moral is complicated. Under what circumstances can there be biblically justified “leaking” or whistleblowing?
A situation involving health and safety, as in the case involving Planned Parenthood, may be an obvious example of ethical whistleblowing (I certainly believe it is). But what about less clear instances of real or presumed harm? For example, Edward Snowden, a government contractor, leaked highly classified information because he perceived harm being done by a National Security Agency (NSA) global surveillance program. Was his leaking of the documents ethical?
Or what about reporting of illegal actions? Should a Christian report to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that their employer has hired undocumented immigrants? Should the co-workers of Mayra Rodriguez, who had entered the United States illegally as an adult, have informed federal authorities that Planned Parenthood hired undocumented workers?
What does being a “good neighbor” or a “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10) mean, obligation-wise, when it comes to warning others against possible harm or illegal activity? If an individual has accurate and true knowledge about a situation that could result—or has already resulted in—public (or semi-public) harm, do they have a biblical obligation to report it?
While the Bible doesn’t spell out the ethical obligations in these specific situations, the literature on justified whistleblowing tracks closely with another set of criteria many Christians apply to one specific intersection of ethics, “neighbor-love” (what the influential theologian Augustine called caritas) and public order: the just-war tradition.
There are two distinct categories in the just-war tradition, both of which are applicable to questions of whistleblowing: jus ad bellum (justice before war, or justice when initiating a war) and jus in bello (justice in war, or justice in the process of waging war). The conditions for each, briefly stated, are:
Jus ad bellum considerations
Proper authority – Who has the right to initiate a conflict?
Just cause – Is the conflict being initiated to achieve a proper end?
Right intention – Am I initiating the conflict for the right (internal) reasons? Public good or private hatred?
Macro-proportionality – Will the goal of this conflict be worth the evil/damage that will take place?
Last resort – Have I tried, to the extent possible, to achieve the proper end through peaceable means?
Probability of success – Is it even possible to achieve the proper end through military means successfully?
Jus in bello considerations
Discrimination – When I fight, am I fighting in such a way that I do what I can to ensure that those who should be protected—like women, children, and the infirm—are protected?
Micro-proportionality – When I fight, do I use tactics that are out of line with my immediate operational objective?
Ethicists who analyze whistleblowing (such as Sissela Bok, Michael Davis, and Richard DeGeorge) tend to use similar categories to those found in just-war theory. In order to overcome the hurdle of disloyalty to an employer or organization of which one is a member, these ethicists look at such questions as:
(a) Do you know that there is possible harm and/or moral wrongdoing going on? Or are you just trying to get back at someone? (just cause and right intention)
(b) Is this information something that you have reasonably direct knowledge about? (proper authority) Added to this, DeGeorge asks, “Is your continued work going to contribute to the wrongdoing you think will occur?”
(c) Have you exhausted all of your internal remedies (immediate supervisor and above)? (last resort)
(d) If you go public, will the “evil” you cause “prevent the [public] harm at a reasonable cost? [Davis]” (proportionality)
Other criteria based on oath-keeping may also need to be considered. If someone has signed a non-disclosure agreement or carries a security clearance, that person is under more stringent guidelines. In such cases, disagreement might require resignation, but continued silence. If public comments are made, they should be done with the understanding that it could result in harm to others, prosecution, and jail time.
Determining how to apply these criteria to all situations is beyond the scope of this article. But Christians should give some thought to how they might be called on to apply this standard to their own vocations—and do so in a way that is consistent with their conscience and biblical morality.
As Christians we should be committed to being truth-tellers and protective of those who take risk to bring us the truth. By developing a biblical view of whistleblowing we can be better prepared to promote and apply ethical whistleblowing as a means of loving our neighbors.