Is an Anti-Choice Clinic Using ‘Unlawful Imprisonment’ as Company Policy?

Those familiar with the tactics employed at anti-choice pregnancy clinics say they're not surprised by a recent Reddit post from a clinic worker.

[Photo: A clinic receptionist is talking on the phone and using her computer.]
Well-funded and increasingly organized, anti-choice clinics have strong armed pregnant people into unknowingly signing away their rights. Shutterstock

A receptionist at an anti-choice clinic wasn’t sure whether it was illegal to lock a patient in an exam room, so last week she asked Reddit for legal advice.

While anti-choice clinics, or crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), are known for trafficking in emotional intimidation and deceit to pressure pregnant people into forgoing abortion care, locking a patient in an exam room may meet the standard of false imprisonment, a legal expert told Rewire.News.

The locked-door incident is the newest, and most alarming, in a litany of scare tactics by the abortion rights foes who operate anti-choice pregnancy clinics, advocates said.

In a Reddit post titled, “Am I going to get arrested for unlawful imprisonment?” the unnamed receptionist described a woman’s frantic response upon realizing she had been locked inside a room in an unidentified anti-choice pregnancy center.

She “became extremely agitated after beginning her appointment. She started screaming ‘I’M GOING TO GET AN ABORTION’ so loud that I could hear it at the front desk. The nurse left the woman alone in the room to calm down. The door was locked and the woman tried to open it in her rampage. When it wouldn’t open, she called 911.”

“The police came in and had us open the door,” the receptionist wrote on Reddit. “I asked them to escort the woman out which they did. One of the cops came back in and told me that what ‘we’ (I was NOT the one who locked the door) committed unlawful imprisonment and should hear from the police in the next few days.”

The receptionist’s post was soon copied into a new Reddit post titled, “At the LAOP’s pregnancy clinic, false imprisonment is all in a day’s work,” where the receptionist was blasted for abetting a potential crime.

Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel with the New York City-based SIA Legal Team, which advocates for reproductive rights and justice, agreed the incident as detailed in the Reddit post has the hallmarks of false imprisonment.

“Based on the description in the post, if it can be proven that the nurse knew the door was locked and would confine the patient, it seems likely that this would be considered false imprisonment,” Diaz-Tello told Rewire.News. “There may be some justification that wasn’t shared in the post, but refusal to sign a form, or even being upset and yelling, wouldn’t justify refusing to let someone leave.”

While statutes vary, Diaz-Tello said that in Arkansas, for example, the legal definition of false imprisonment in the second degree is when a person “without consent and without lawful authority … knowingly restrains another person so as to interfere substantially with the other person’s liberty.”

Diaz-Tello was most disturbed by the anti-choice center’s “company policy” of confining the woman until she signed some type of paperwork. On Reddit, the receptionist tried to excuse her actions as “company policy.”

“I want to emphasize that the nurses and I followed company policy to a T through this entire situation. Did we commit a crime, or if a crime was committed, is it the fault of the business? Are any of us liable or is it the business owner? Again, we were following company policy. Thank you.”

That a CPC would potentially imprison a woman didn’t shock reproductive justice advocate Renee Bracey Sherman. Years ago, while investigating the anti-choice facilities, Bracey Sherman recalled that a staffer “positioned themselves between me and the door, and wouldn’t allow my ‘friend’ to come upstairs to check on me during our agreed upon time.”

She continued, “They kept her downstairs and separated from me for 20 minutes, even after I repeatedly asked to see her and began to cry. I could imagine how scary this would be for someone seeking an abortion.”

Beth Vial, a 24-year-old college student in Portland, Oregon, got an abortion after enduring an ordeal at a local anti-choice clinic that left her in tears. Apart from the coercive “counseling,” Vial said the anti-choice clinic staff lied about her gestational date, saying she was only 16 weeks along, when, as it later turned out, she was 26 weeks along. For weeks afterward, the facility made harassing phone calls until Vial finally blocked the number.

Of the Reddit post, Vial said it didn’t surprise her, but added, “It’s so extreme it breaks my heart.”

Anti-choice pregnancy centers far outnumber abortion clinics, with more than 2,700 operating in the United States, according to Reproaction’s Fake Clinic Database. Well-funded and increasingly organized, anti-choice clinics have strong armed pregnant people into unknowingly signing away their rights. In Tennessee, an anti-choice clinic tricked a teen into signing away her legal right to an abortion—a tactic abortion providers around the country have confirmed. In the 2018 fiscal year, 14 states funneled $40.5 million in tax dollars to anti-choice clinics. More than a dozen earmarked taxpayer funding for these clinics with “Choose Life” license plates.

“What’s most troubling here is that this seems to be ‘company policy,’” Diaz-Tello said. “In addition to being a crime, false imprisonment is a tort, which means that the person who was confined would be able to file a lawsuit in civil court.”

Typically run by religious anti-abortion groups, anti-choice clinics ostensibly provide “health care” in the form of free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and other services—but are immune to the extensive health restrictions that govern abortion clinics. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court in July rejected California’s attempt to regulate crisis pregnancy centers through a public disclosure law.

“There is no other sector of modern medical care in which coercion by non-clinical outside forces is tolerated, and the fact that such blatantly abusive tactics are employed should tell people everything they need to know about so-called crisis pregnancy centers,” said Shireen Rose Shakouri, campaign lead with Reproaction.

“This situation in the Reddit post is yet another example of why there should be no agenda in medical care,” she told Rewire.News.

Anti-choice pregnancy centers have a long record of using online searches to trick people into thinking the facilities provide medical care, like abortions, when they don’t. Some use high-tech mobile surveillance to target pregnant people inside clinic waiting rooms.

As Bracey Sherman noted, faux health care at anti-choice clinics puts patients at risk. “Those of us who need options like counseling and pregnancy-related care, including abortion, deserve not only compassion, but medically accurate, unbiased, and factual information. We must be able to make our own decisions, free from coercion, and I can’t believe I have to say this, but free from kidnapping.”