When Britney Spears finally told the truth about the conservatory where she has been trapped for more than a decade at a trial in Los Angeles last week, one of the most harrowing details was that she was denied the right to have her IUD removed.
Spears’ reproductive rights trampling shows how closely sexism and ableism can be intertwined.
In the outcry that followed, the millions who have joined the #FreeBritney movement over the past decade – whether they know it or not – also highlight issues that stand in the way of disability rights in general.
“What happens to Britney Spears is undeniably tragic,” said Robyn M. Powell, disability researcher and visiting professor at Stetson University College of Law. “It’s not at all surprising either – especially for people with disabilities. The United States has a shameful history of denying freedom of reproduction to people with disabilities, especially those who are also BIPoC or LGBTQ. “
In 2008, after a public battle with mental health, Spears was deprived of the right to make her own decisions about her finances, body, and relationships. In court, Spears described their conservatories as “abusive” and compared them to “sex trafficking”.
Spears shared details of her final years, including treatment with lithium against her will, which she testified was incapable of acting. “I am not happy, I cannot sleep. I’m so mad it’s crazy And I’m depressed, ”she said.
While this highly restrictive form of legal guardianship sounds outrageous, it resembles many of the laws that have been put in place to control people with disabilities.
“We’re treated like toddlers even though we’re adults,” actress / comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid told MSNBC. “I hope people realize that these kinds of human rights abuses in the disabled community are happening all the time.”
“She’s exceptional,” Zaid said of Spears, “but not the exception to the rule.”
Several countries have passed “eugenic laws” in the past that have restricted the reproductive rights of women with developmental disabilities. In the United States, a 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, the forced sterilization of more than 70,000 people with disabilities and has never been lifted. “Sterilization continues to be more common than we’d like to admit, often on the pretext that it’s in the ‘best interests’ of people with disabilities,” said Powell.
For parents with intellectual disabilities, child withdrawal rates are 40 to 80 percent.
Spears’ reproductive rights trampling shows how closely sexism and ableism can be intertwined. As we heard in her testimony, being deprived of one’s reproductive freedom can be an incredibly dehumanizing experience. “I feel allied and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone,” she told the court. “I deserve to have the same rights as everyone else by having a child, a family, or all of those things.”
Spears also said she was prevented from seeing her boyfriend and children under her care, also a common experience for people with disabilities, whose relationships are often dictated by family members or caregivers. When I was serving as a counselor in a community center for adults with intellectual disabilities, we were told to obey the wishes of the family towards individuals. It was not uncommon for patients to be denied the right to intimate relationships because their families overridden their personal choices; and the family is not challenged in the disability welfare system.
While we often talk about the right to love for the LGBTQ community, we rarely discuss this type of autonomy in the disabled community. Marriage equality is still inaccessible for many couples with disabilities. Many do not marry for fear of “marital punishments” that can include loss of health insurance or other benefits. (Because of this, many people with disabilities have to name their romantic partners “roommates” to comply with these outdated and ableist laws.)
And once people with disabilities are able to marry or become parents, their children are more likely to be taken away from them. For parents with intellectual disabilities, the child deportation rate is 40 to 80 percent. In the case of parents with physical disabilities, 13 percent report discrimination in custody cases.
While we often talk about the right to love for the LGBTQ community, we rarely discuss this type of autonomy in the disabled community.
“Disabled parents are more likely than non-disabled parents to be involved in child welfare and parental rights terminated,” Powell said. “Family breakups are often based solely on prejudice and speculation about how a parent’s disability might affect their upbringing, rather than an actual incident of abuse or neglect.”
We saw all of this piece in 2007 when Spears lost access to their children. “Not only is Britney Spears being denied the right to marry and have more children, but she has previously lost custody of her two sons after going through a mental health crisis,” Powell said. “Unfortunately this is not uncommon.”
Powell added that what often weakens children of disabled parents is not the disability but the ableism. “Children have to be with their families. We need to repeal archaic laws that make this separation possible. We need to implement support to help families thrive. “
While it is paramount to #FreeBritney, it is also important to recognize that her case exemplifies the tragic fate of countless disabled people in this country.
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