- In her testimony about her conservatorship, Britney Spears revealed that she was prevented from removing her IUD.
- This high-profile case has shined a light on reproductive justice, and lack thereof for people with disabilities.
- The best way you can support disabled people’s reproductive rights is educate yourself about the issue and support advocacy organizations.
Britney Spears’s legal battle regarding the conservatorship that’s controlled most aspects of her life since 2008 has been a headline in the news for some time now. She finally delivered a long-anticipated testimony on June 23 that outlined some of the abuses of her conservatorship, speaking out for the first time in years. Much of what we’ve learned from this testimony demonstrates that her living conditions are much worse than we could have imagined, especially in regards to Britney’s control over her own body and reproductive destiny. “I want to get married and have a baby,” she told the judge, “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.”
This news is shocking to many, triggering to others, and completely unsurprising to folks who are familiar with the sordid history of reproductive control in the US, especially in regards to women of color, poor women, and disabled people. In fact, it’s not entirely illegal for people placed under conservatorships to be forced to take birth control or worse, be permanently sterilized. Unfortunately, violations of reproductive autonomy aren’t unprecedented, but Britney’s high-profile case has shined a light on a really troubling and contentious debate in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice: who has the right to birth and raise children?
While most understand reproductive justice (RJ) as a fight for safe, legal, and accessible abortion, a lot don’t know that the framework was actually founded by Black feminists in the 90s to address intersectional issues like the right to choose, to birth children, and the right to care for your family in a safe and secure environment. Sister Song, RJ’s founding collective led by women of color, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” This three-tenet approach emerged from the need for a more intersectional framework within the reproductive rights movement, which was led largely by heterosexual middle/upper middle-class white women who focused solely on abortion rights.
So, what does this have to do with Britney Spears and her conservatorship? And what, if anything, does it have to do with sex and pleasure?
Britney has been placed under this conservatorship because of her perceived inability to handle her own affairs due to her mental health status, which, in many contexts, classifies her as a disabled person. Disabled people have historically faced and still experience incredible barriers when it comes to accessing reproductive healthcare and the right to parent. The US has a troubling history of compulsory sterilization of disabled people who society deems unfit to parent because of their mental or physical conditions. “Feeblemindedness,” for example, was a diagnosis that could warrant sterilization. All in all, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century alone because of conditions such as deafness, blindness, and “mental deficiencies.” Often, poor women and women who were seen as “promiscuous,” or otherwise sexually “deviant” were targeted.
Which leads us to the intersection of disability and sex. There’s an upsetting dichotomy that exists in how we see disabled peoples’ sexuality: on the one hand, great measures have been taken to control disabled people’s sexuality and reproduction. On the other hand, disabled people are seen as having no sexuality and, consequently, given little to no access to reproductive health resources and education regarding inclusive and affirming sex ed. Furthermore, psychiatrist Dr. William Burr explains that lots of folks with disabilities require physical assistance or therapy to aid in their day-to-day activities, but cannot access that same level of compassionate and judgment-free care when trying to explore their pleasure: “While few caregivers would think twice about assisting a person with disabilities in the bathroom, many feel squeamish about advising or assisting that same person in the bedroom.” This lack of a holistic approach to sexual wellness is due, in large part, to the harmful and longstanding stigma surrounding the overlap between disability and sex. While it may not be entirely true in Britney’s case, as her sexuality has been at the forefront of her public persona, the desexualization of disabled people remains prevalent and harmful.
Unfortunately, Britney’s case is all too common. The outcry of support for her bodily autonomy is heartening, though. And her abusive situation offers many a high-profile example of what it looks like to be denied what RJ refers to as “the right to parent” because of her perceived disability. A lot of folks find themselves mobilized to #FreeBritney by taking to their social media pages (as well as the streets) to voice their support for her release from the conservatorship. Hopefully, the public outcry will have some sway in her case, but a lot of us find ourselves uneasy and trying to figure out other ways we can help. You might ask yourself: what can you do to tangibly get involved in supporting reproductive justice and disability rights? Here are just a few things you can think about to start.
- Educate yourself and your network on the discrimination disabled people face when it comes to their right to parent. Disabled people also face a lot of barriers in accessing basic reproductive healthcare, and even experience discrimination when trying to become pregnant or adopt. While we are, thankfully, beginning to see more and more providers discussing the gaps in quality healthcare based on gender, disability remains a woefully under-discussed and unsupported aspect of our efforts to progress comprehensive reproductive and sexual wellness.
- Support all disabled people’s rights by researching advocacy organizations and offering them support with your resources, your platform, or your skills. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, for example, works to advance the civil rights of disabled people by pushing for just and inclusive policy change, training attorneys and advocates, as well as offering resources for disabled people and parents of disabled people. And, importantly, it was founded by disabled people and their families.
- Finally, check in with yourself and determine the best ways to take care of yourself. It’s very possible that the news of Britney’s forced IUD and the frenzy surrounding it has brought up difficult feelings and possibly even triggered some trauma of your own, especially if you or someone you love has been subjected to a similar kind of control or exploitation. It may be beneficial, for example, to set limits when it comes to how much media you’ll consume and reach out to your support network to talk about how it’s affecting you. And always remember: your pleasure and your body are your own.