How the #FreeBritney Movement Is a Disability Rights Issue

Britney Spears' forced IUD is part of this country's long history with forced sterilization of people with disabilities.

Photo of protesters holding signs to Free Britney
For the past 13 years, Britney Spears has been under conservatorship, in which a court-mandated guardian is put in charge of decision-making for a person deemed unable to act in their own best interests. Rich Fury/Getty Images

Singer Britney Spears appeared remotely in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday to request to be freed from her conservatorship. Revealing just how oppressive her conservatorship is, she told the court she wants to have another baby but is being prevented from having her intrauterine device (IUD) removed.

“I want to be able to get married and have a baby,” Spears told the court. “I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby.”

How is this possible, you might ask? Spears is 39 years old, has had a successful Vegas residency, and continues to perform and tour.

It’s because for the past 13 years, Spears has been under conservatorship, a legal proceeding in which a court-mandated guardian is put in charge of decision-making for a person deemed unable to act in their own best interests.

In Spears’ case, her father has had control over nearly every aspect of her life since her mental health crisis in February 2008. And he has been paid handsomely for it—to the tune of $16,000 per month out of her earnings. Meanwhile, Spears is provided $2,000 per week as an allowance, according to the New York Times.

Spears’ father—along with Jodi Montgomery, a licensed professional conservator who took over conservatorship of Spears’ person two years ago—maintains nearly full control over her finances and life. They control how many hours she works per day, what tours she is required to go on, what medication she is required to take, and, incredibly, whether she is permitted to have children.

Following the bombshell that her father is preventing her from having another baby, a lot of people expressed sympathy for Britney Spears. But not enough made the connection between her plight and the plight of people with disabilities, both currently and throughout history.

Conservatorships are frequently used when elderly people, for example, are no longer able to care for themselves.

They are also used for anyone with a disability who is deemed unable to care for themselves. The conservatee-guardian relationship is often exploitative.

The guardianship system doesn’t just control someone’s finances—it controls intimate details of their lives, as evidenced by the stranglehold that Spears’ father and his team have on her life, going so far as to disallow her from removing her IUD.

There’s a word for this: forced sterilization. Here’s another one: eugenics.

For years, anti-choicers have been waging a war against Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger, on the basis of her eugenicist beliefs.

They disingenuously demand that the organization be defunded due to false claims that Margaret Sanger was a virulent racist who wanted to eradicate Black people from existing by putting pop-up abortion clinics in every Black family’s basement.

At Rewire News Group, we have debunked that claim time and again.

Margaret Sanger was not a virulent racist: If you don’t believe us, you should read her writings and the interviews she gave.

Sanger, was, however, a virulent ableist and few people talk about it. Sanger would likelyhave supported forcibly sterilizing Britney Spears by preventing her from removing her IUD.

Sanger believed that people with disabilities should be forbidden from procreating. Dorothy Roberts, the author of Killing the Black Body, wrote:

Even in her most eugenical book, The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger did not tie fitness for reproduction to any particular ethnic group. It appears that Sanger was motivated by a genuine concern to improve the health of the poor mothers she served rather than a desire to eliminate their stock. Sanger believed that all their afflictions arose from their unrestrained fertility, not their genes or racial heritage.

Sanger wanted to stop poor people and the “insane and feeble minded” from breeding, irrespective of their race. When she talked about racial betterment, she meant bettering the human race by sterilizing people with disabilities.

Critically, “feeble-mindedness” was often a stand-in for promiscuity. Take the case of Carrie Buck, for example.

After Buck conceived a baby out of wedlock (she said that she had been raped), she was institutionalized and ordered to be sterilized against her will. Her legal guardian filed an appeal and the case ended up at the Supreme Court, where she lost.

In 1927, the Court ruled that Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law was constitutional, in a stunningly awful case called Buck v. Bell. In that decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The Buck v. Bell decision set the stage for state after state to enact compulsory sterilization laws and prompted a wave of forced sterilization that hit people of color and poor people the hardest.

Another example is the case of Ann Cooper Hewitt, an heiress from the family that founded Cooper Union.

When Hewitt was 3 years old, she was caught with her hand down her pants. This led to doctors declaring her “feeble-minded,” followed by a life of abuse at the hands of her socialite mother.

Hewitt’s mother paid to have Hewitt forcibly sterilized so she could get her hands on the multimillion-dollar fortune her daughter was set to inherit. If her daughter had no children, the fortune would be hers.

Hewitt went on to file a lawsuit in 1936 for a half-million in damages. After a lengthy trial, she and her mother settled the lawsuit for $150,000.

You can learn more about Hewitt in The Unfit Heiress, a book published earlier this year. The book’s author, Audrey Clare Farley, told Rewire News Group:

In the early stages of the eugenics movement, promiscuity and oversexuality were thought to be a mark of feeble-mindedness—a catch-all term applied to sexually deviant, poor, substance-dependent, epileptic, intellectually disabled, or otherwise socially undesirable persons. Being feeble-minded meant someone was genetically and morally defective. So disability and immorality essentially went hand-in-hand, with eugenicists eager to prevent the proliferation of such traits.

Spears’ situation is not dissimilar from Hewitt’s.

For over a decade, her father has wielded control over her fortune in an apparent attempt to keep his hands in her coffers.

And now he is attempting to forcibly sterilize her. I can only speculate as to why—it’s likely so he can continue to reap the benefits of her hard work—but in any event, he is exploiting the often corrupt conservatorship system to the detriment of his daughter.

The #FreeBritney movement is a disability rights issue. And it is incumbent upon the reproductive rights and justice movements to continue to center disability justice.

This post was adapted from a Twitter thread.