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Britney Spears’ Reproductive Freedom is a Disability Rights Issue

Britney Spears is shown arriving to the MTV Video Music Awards on June 28, 2016
Spears’ experience is part of a long history of people with disabilities — most often people of color — being robbed of the right to control their reproductive destinies.
Britney Spears is shown arriving to the MTV Video Music Awards on June 28, 2016
Zoe Brennan-Krohn,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Disability Rights Program
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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June 25, 2021

UPDATE: After 13 years, Britney’s conservatorship finally ended in November 2021, restoring her right to make decisions about her own life. But there are still over 1 million people with disabilities living under some form of conservatorship or guardianship in the U.S. — people who deserve access to their civil liberties, too.

There were many shocking moments in Britney Spears’ 24-minute statement calling for an end to her conservatorship, delivered Wednesday to a Los Angeles probate judge by phone. The pop star, who has lived under a conservatorship chiefly overseen by her father for 13 years, described grueling labor demands, constant surveillance, being cut off from friends, and being confined against her will. As Spears made her case for the judge, one startling detail stood out amidst the laundry list of abuses: Although she would like to have children and be married, her conservators refuse to allow her to have her intrauterine device (IUD) removed, she said, “because they don’t want me to be able to have children.”

Fans, onlookers, and the media seized on this revelation, many expressing shock and dismay that a conservator could require a 39-year-old woman to use birth control against her will. “Britney HAS to keep an IUD in under her conservatorship?” asked one horrified Twitter user. “How is any of this legal/okay?”

Unfortunately, losing your reproductive freedom because you are in a conservatorship is very often legal. When a court puts a person under a conservatorship or guardianship, the court is taking away that person’s right to make their own choices. And often, that includes reproductive choices. Even though a conservatorship is a highly invasive, severe loss of rights and liberty, courts approve them routinely, and almost always allow them to continue permanently.

Spears’ experience is part of a long history of people with disabilities — most often people of color — being forcibly sterilized, forced to end pregnancies, or losing the right to raise their own children. Thanks to Spears’ large platform and following, her demands to be freed from her conservatorship have been heard. But there are untold thousands of people living under this same type of restrictive structure, who have lost their rights to reproductive freedom, often permanently.

As the eugenics movement gained popularity in the early 20th century, numerous states passed laws allowing for the involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities. In 1927, an 8-1 decision from the Supreme Court approved forced sterilization laws, in a sweeping and bigoted opinion penned by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The plaintiff in that case, Buck v. Bell, was a woman named Carrie Buck, who challenged her forced sterilization. She had been deemed “feebleminded” by a family that had taken her in as a servant, and whose relative had raped her. To cover up the resulting pregnancy, the family had doctors commit her to an institution where they planned to sterilize her. Justice Holmes’ opinion for the court’s majority stated:

“It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

This opinion had profound consequences. Between 1907 and 1945, upwards of 70,000 people — overwhelmingly poor people of color — were sterilized involuntarily under eugenic sterilization laws. California’s forced sterilization law was not repealed until 1979, and forced sterilization in California prisons continued even after that. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.

While the bald cruelty of Holmes’ words may seem antiquated, the practice of controlling the reproductive choices of people with disabilities continues today. Then, as now, forced sterilization or birth control is often cast by courts and conservators as a protective mechanism in the best interest of a person with a disability, or for their safety. Some guardians and conservators who rob conservatees of these choices are certainly acting out of genuine concern and love for the person in their care. But the choice to have or not have a child, and when to do so, is a fundamental right. Many people with disabilities, even significant disabilities, have and raise children in loving, safe families. The denial of that right is too often based in stigma, paternalism, and stereotypes, and can have a lasting mental, emotional, and physical impact on the person deprived of their reproductive autonomy.

We still don’t know the specific terms or details of Spears’ conservatorship. We don’t know whether she identifies as a person with disabilities, or what private medical conversations she or her conservators have had about these choices. But we now know that she has stated that she wants to have another child and be a parent, and that she is being prevented from doing so. And we know that she has said that she wants to get out of the conservatorship. As we’ve said before, the ease with which people with disabilities are placed under the control of a conservator or guardian and stripped of their civil rights and liberties is a deeply concerning, systemic issue, and what Spears has shared publicly fits the pattern of harm and deprivation of autonomy that happens all too often across the country.

Thankfully, an IUD is not a permanent method of birth control, and Spears should be able to have a child after its removal, should she still want to. We are hopeful that thanks to Spears’ large platform and the spotlight on her statement, the judge will heed her request to restore her rights. There are many less-restrictive support systems, like supported decision-making, that she and trusted family or friends can use.

Justice Holmes’ offensive and bigoted rhetoric may no longer be in use, but Buck v. Bell is still the law of the land, with few exceptions. As The Daily Beast reports, more than half of states permit the forced sterilization of people under conservatorships in some capacity. And across the country, people still rely on stereotypes and assumptions to take reproductive choices out of the hands of people with disabilities — especially BIPOC and marginalized people with disabilities. The coercive power and control handed to conservators is a disability rights crisis, and an insult to the reproductive liberty of people with disabilities.

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