The news that Britney Spears' conservatorship has allegedly forced her to use an IUD is raising red flags about disability and reproductive rights.
After over a dozen years, Britney Spears finally got her say in court. On Wednesday, June 23, Spears recounted her experiences with the 13-year conservatorship run largely by her father, Jamie Spears, which has controlled nearly every aspect of her life, including her bodily autonomy. It was a moment that her fans and advocates, who spearheaded the #FreeBritney movement, knew was coming — but it was still hard to hear.
In her passionate testimony, Spears — who was reportedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a highly publicized 2007 mental health crisis — recounted several instances of her bodily autonomy being violated, mostly through allegedly being forced to take psychiatric medications she did not want to and carrying out exhausting performance tours. In one heartbreaking part, she told the court, “My precious body [has] worked for my dad for the past f*cking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect. When he works me so hard.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Spears’ father responded to her testimony saying he’s “sorry to hear she’s suffering and in so much pain” and “misses his daughter very much.”
Spears’ lament of the loss of her bodily autonomy was perhaps most striking when she spoke about how her conservatorship was controlling her reproductive choices. “I have an [IUD] inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the [IUD] out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children — any more children,” Spears, who is mother to two children, 15-year-old Sean and 14-year-old Jayden, told Los Angeles Judge Brenda Penny.
“I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” Spears said.
Spears’ ordeal shows us why disability and reproductive justice are inseparable.
The idea that people like Spears — and myself — aren’t fit to be parents haunts me, and has led to so much anguish. Like Spears, I have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since receiving that diagnosis, I’ve worried that I’d be an unsuitable mother. Motherhood is a deep desire of mine, but I have felt (and still sometimes feel) unworthy of it. That fear has only increased over the years, as writing about mental illness has caused me to learn about the long history of hatred, exploitation, and abuse of mentally ill people. And living with severe mental illness has exposed me to prejudice in my own life, which always cuts deeper than anything I could read.
Once, within two hours of finding out the extent of my mental illness (she had previously thought my issues were milder), an older woman who had said I’d be a great mom changed her mind. As I wondered aloud if I was too “crazy” to have a child, she replied, “Some people just aren’t cut out for it.” That comment, from someone I admired, still has a place in my heart to this day.
But Spears’ assertion of her own rights helps give me strength when I think back on that cruel comment, and all the other cruel comments I’ve heard. “I deserve to have a life,” Spears told the court. She does, and so do I. So does everyone who experiences mental illness, no matter what the world thinks.
Spears’ ordeal shows us why disability and reproductive justice are inseparable. No one has the right to determine whether disabled people are worthy of making our own decisions about our own bodies. Others don’t have the right to use our conditions and experiences to pass judgment on what kind of parents we’ll be, no matter how much they think they are acting for good. The idea that our blood is tainted, and that we are unable to start our own families, is one rooted in hate.
Preventing mentally ill and other disabled people from having children is not new. Eugenics, which is the practice of controlling people’s reproduction to reduce so-called “undesirable” population traits, has a dark and long history: In 1927, the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell ruled that it was constitutional for the “unfit” (which includes mentally ill and intellectually disabled people) to be forcibly sterilized by the government "for the protection and health of the state.” The case focused on Carrie Buck, a Virginia woman with a family history of mental disability living in an institution — where she had been placed by her foster parents after becoming pregnant at 17 — and whether the state had the right to forcibly sterilize her. The court ruled against Buck. In the infamous opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
And the targeted campaign against disabled people raged on, with the blessing of the state. According to data compiled by Lutz Kaelber, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, between 1924 and 1979, about 7,325 people were sterilized in Virginia. Nearly all of them were classified as “mentally ill” or “mentally deficient,” and 62% of those sterilized were women. For decades across the country, Black women have been disproportionately sterilized against their will, while welfare and social safety nets have been used to coerce or force people, usually marginalized people, into sterilization.
Buck v. Bell has never been expressly overturned, although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has given disabled people some protections. Still, the ADA is frequently disregarded and twisted. And the United States continues to allegedly forcibly sterilize marginalized people.
Seeing Britney Spears defend herself and seeing the world support her brings me hope.
This denial of autonomy is a human rights violation, Dr. Leah Torres, OB/GYN at West Alabama Women’s Center, Inc. in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tells Elite Daily. “Not removing someone’s IUD, if that is their will, is the definition of reproductive coercion. Our government and health care providers have a sordid history of forcing infertility on people and it is grotesque. This is what’s being done to Britney Spears.”
“No one can tell someone else when they can or cannot have children. Not doctors, not lawyers, not parents, not presidents,” Torres says.
Seeing Britney Spears defend herself and seeing the world support her brings me hope that one day, disabled people like me will have the rights, compassion, and humanity that we deserve. In the eight years since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve had my humanity stripped away so many times — by hospitals, police, family, and friends. It has to stop.
If this violation happens to wealthy, white, international pop stars who have the benefit of publicity, money, and support, imagine what poor, racialized, disabled people are forced to endure. Spears deserves all of our support and compassion, but we must understand that she represents a very common reality for disabled people globally. Freeing Britney means freeing us all.