Perhaps the most shocking accusation from Britney Spears’ searing court hearing was that her guardians forced her to have an IUD—an implanted contraceptive device—even though she wants to have children.
But it didn’t come as a surprise to reproductive rights experts who say such arrangements are all too common—and even worse than what the pop star revealed.
Current laws allow guardians a huge amount of power over their conservatees’ reproductive lives, according to National Women’s Law Center attorney Ma’ayan Anafi. In fact, a majority of states allow conservators to enforce not just long-acting contraception, but permanent sterilization.
“A lot of people don’t know about this because people with disabilities are often not given that chance to talk about their experiences,” Anafi said. “What’s happening to Britney Spears is actually very common. What’s different is Britney Spears has a platform to share it with the world.”
Spears testified in a court hearing Wednesday about the many things she claims she was forced to do under the conservatorship, which was established after a serious mental health episode in 2008, and allows her guardians to make decisions for her.
“I want to get married and have a baby,” Spears told the judge in her emotional 40-minute testimony. “I want [the IUD] taken out so I can 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 any more children.”
Women’s rights activists from both sides of the aisle responded quickly, deeming the conservators’ actions “criminal” and calling it “reproductive coercion.” NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted that preventing someone from having children was “a violation of their most fundamental freedoms.”
But reproductive control of those under conservatorships is nothing new. A rash of states passed involuntary sterilization laws during the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, believing that cognitive and physical disabilities could be passed down from generation to generation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws constitutional in the Buck v Bell decision of 1927, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote, “It is better for all the world, if… society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Between 1907 and 1963, an estimated 60,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent.
The second half of the century—and a growing disability rights movement—brought a wave of reforms that provided some additional protections to individuals whose guardians were seeking sterilization without their consent. But more than half of all U.S. states still allow forced sterilization of people in a conservatorship in some capacity, according to a forthcoming review by the National Women’s Law Center.
Data on conservatorships is sparse, so it is unclear exactly how many people have been sterilized or forced to take contraceptives without their consent. But Sam Crane, legal director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, said that based on anecdotal evidence, the issue was not uncommon. The three disability and reproductive rights experts who spoke to The Daily Beast had all heard of similar situations outside of Spears’ case.
Anafi said this loss of autonomy can be “hugely traumatic” for people with disabilities. Research shows that people with disabilities who don’t have control over their lives experience a lower quality of life, lose skills, and suffer from more mental-health issues.
“A lot of people don’t really think about the disabled person as someone who has their own wishes and goals and preferences and desires,” Anafi said. “But having this choice taken away… that is something that can be really painful and is also something that sends a message about how the state sees disabled people.”
One of the reforms passed late in the 20th century was a California law prohibiting forced sterilization without court authorization. But Crane said this law appears to apply only to permanent sterilization—meaning Spears’ case may not be covered. (She and other advocates are arguing that the pop star’s situation should count as permanent sterilization, since Spears is 39 years old and may soon not be able to conceive.)
Wednesday’s hearing on the conservatorship ended without a resolution; Spears’ next court date is slated for July. But advocates hope that the publicity around it will raise awareness of similar, lower-profile situations happening around the country.
“The most notable thing about this case is not how awfully she’s being treated but how high-profile she is,” Crane said. “We know there are other people who are experiencing similar problems, [and] we hope this case can help raise awareness and build momentum toward broader reforms.”