One of the most harrowing moments in Britney Spears’ explosive speech unmasking the stark realities of her conservatorship came near the end, when she said:
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. 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. … I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so.
Despite her fame and success, Britney Spears was stripped of autonomy over her money, life, and body. Why? Because she had experienced a mental health crisis.
Deemed unable to take care of herself as a disabled person, Spears was forced into an abusive conservatorship, in which she had no choice but to relinquish control over every aspect of her existence, from her health care to her financial decisions. The guardianship system even endowed Spears’ father with the power to prohibit her from removing her intrauterine device, despite her explicit desire for a child. This is nothing short of forced sterilization, a favorite instrument in the eugenics toolkit.
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Spears’ case does not exist in a vacuum—instead, it slots into a long, bloody history of American eugenics. To unpack the connections between Spears’ exploitative conservatorship, eugenics, and reproductive rights, we have to first turn back the clock to the 20th century—to another notorious court case and the long shadow it cast over disability justice and reproductive rights.
The year is 1927. Buck v. Bell is being argued in the Supreme Court. Its central player is Carrie Buck, a woman committed to a state mental institution, who, much like Spears, was deemed “feeble-minded,” a diagnosis she shared with her mother and daughter. (Note that “feeble-mindedness” was a blatant dog whistle of a diagnosis: it stood in, often, for promiscuity.)
Buck’s diagnosis led to her institutionalization, where she was forced to undergo sterilization, pursuant to a Virginia law that promoted such procedures for the “health of the patient and the welfare of society.” She sued Virginia medical authorities, contending that such a law violated her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in writing for the court, said:
“It is better for all 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. Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
Holmes’ chilling words laid bare that the right to bodily autonomy is not protected for those deemed “unfit” to reproduce. While Buck v. Bell has been widely denounced as part of the “anticanon” of Supreme Court decisions, it has never been overturned. It reflects and reifies the aims of the eugenics project in the United States, a movement that gained traction in the early 1900s as a way of “cleansing” society of “undesirable” people and resulted in the forced sterilization of over 70,000 people. Eugenicists disproportionately targeted people from marginalized communities, including immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, queer and trans people, and incarcerated or institutionalized people. The American eugenics project was so robust that it served as a model for Nazi Germany, justifying the systemic murder of nearly 7 million people.
“When we think about the fact that Anne Frank died in a concentration camp, we’re often told that it was because the Nazis believed the Jews were genetically inferior, that they were lesser than Aryans,” Adam Cohen, whose book about the Buck case—Imbeciles—explores the connection between the American eugenics movement and Nazi Germany, told NPR in 2016. “That’s true, but to some extent Anne Frank died in a concentration camp because the U.S. Congress believed that as well.”
Although we may like to think of eugenics as a thing of the past, Buck v. Bell’s ruling reverberates into the present. We see the logic of eugenics undergird the involuntary hysterectomies performed to this day in ICE detention camps and prisons. We saw it play out in a Los Angeles court on Wednesday, when Britney Spears revealed that the decision to take out her IUD had been stripped away from her. We can trace the tight links between Spears’ abuse and the fraught history of eugenic violence in this country.
#FreeBritney is not only a reproductive rights issue, but also a disability justice and anti-eugenics one. The three necessarily go hand-in-hand. As Sara Luterman underscores in the New Republic, “Nondisabled adults make harmful decisions all the time, and they usually do not risk losing their civil rights for it. In this way, disability becomes a line through which different rights—or denial of rights—are articulated.”
Co-opting anti-eugenics language to restrict reproductive rights
Spears’ story is not new; what is new, however, is the right-wing co-option of the disability rights at the heart of it.
Increasingly, conservatives are invoking disability justice and anti-eugenics rhetoric to rationalize far-right agendas. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, consistently touts anti-eugenics language to promote stripping pregnant people of access to reproductive health care. In a 2019 opinion, he pontificated that “abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation.” Thomas specifically harkened back to Buck v. Bell, marking it as the defining case in which the Court “threw its prestige behind the eugenics movement.”
Along the same vein, the Sixth Circuit recently upheld an Ohio law banning abortions sought after a fetal Down syndrome diagnosis, with one judge reasoning that this law prevents doctors from becoming complicit in “abortions for eugenic reasons.”
The hypocrisy here is staggering: Ohio legislators feigned concern about disabled people to pare back reproductive rights, while enacting material harm on its disabled citizens by withholding funding from disability rights-centered programs. The dissonance between state rhetoric and action reveals that Ohio’s law harnessed disability justice as a Trojan horse—a palatable mechanism to restrict access to reproductive health care under the gauzy veil of progress.
At a time when reproductive rights are under attack on a national stage, the conservative co-option of anti-eugenics rhetoric is disturbing. For one, it props up a false dichotomy between pro-choice and anti-eugenics. If you are in favor of broad abortion rights, conservative jurists seem to suggest, you are condoning eugenics. This sharp binary is patently false; in fact, eugenics and abortion bans serve the same end goal: restricting bodily autonomy.
As Johanna Schoen, a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Abortion After Roe, highlights, “Eugenics—at its core—is based on the state making reproductive decisions for others.” State-sanctioned restrictions on reproductive choices violate the right to bodily autonomy, no matter what guise they take. Disability justice is about promoting, not restricting, choice, whether that be Spears’ choice to remove her IUD or a pregnant person’s choice to seek an abortion.
Moreover, conservative rhetoric grossly mischaracterizes disability justice. When mulling over the question, “What changes do we disability rights activists want to accomplish in the process of prenatal screening and selective abortion?” Marsha Saxton, an activist and professor at University of California, Berkeley, responded, “We want to educate the general public about the social issues of disability, so that families can make informed and meaningful decisions about prenatal screening, as these technologies reach more people.”
Disability justice is invested in abolishing systemic ableism, not peeling back reproductive rights. It demands increased education and public awareness of disability justice, so that potential parents are not forced to make uninformed decisions. It demands that disability be destigmatized and understood as a marginalized identity in a world saturated with ableism, much like race under white supremacy, or gender under patriarchy. As bioethicist Adrienne Asch notes, to bring “a disabled child into the world when abortion is possible,” we must “be able to imagine saying to a child: I wanted you enough and believed enough in who you could be that I felt you could have a life you would appreciate even with the difficulties your disability causes.”
You can—and should—be pro-choice and anti-eugenics. The two are not mutually exclusive; Britney Spears’ case illuminates that they are now and forever linked. We cannot allow conservatives to warp the language of disability justice and erect a facile false binary between pro-choice and anti-eugenics.
Ending eugenics will not be accomplished by closing the doors to Planned Parenthood. Rather, ending eugenics will require toppling every institution of oppression, from white supremacy to the carceral state. While conservatives may ventriloquize opposition to eugenics in order to wipe out these fundamental rights, we must be suspicious of any rhetoric that conflates disability justice and a far-right agenda, because they are antithetical to one another.
Disability justice is a capacious project of liberation that centers every person deemed “unfit” to exercise autonomy. It represents the opposite of the conservative perspective, which has championed the eugenics project from the 19th century onwards, as it shapeshifted to occupy psychiatric institutions, ICE camps, the prison-industrial complex, and even the guardianship system.
After all, disability justice calls for abolishing all forms of ableism—from inaccessible buildings to Spears’ exploitative conservatorship—and reimagining our world in a way that works for all of us, not just those born into power. Such a vision requires more reproductive rights, not less.