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Britney Spears' conservatorship and America's fight for disability rights

Britney Spears deserves her freedom; but we rarely discuss the need for this type of autonomy in the disability community.
Image: Britney Spears
Britney Spears arrives for a movie premiere in Hollywood, on July 22, 2019.Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images file

When Britney Spears finally shared the truth about the conservatorship she’s been trapped in for more than a decade at a Los Angeles court hearing last week, one of the most jarring details was that she is being denied the right to remove her IUD.

The trampling of Spears’ reproductive rights exemplifies just how intertwined sexism and ableism can become.

In the ensuing outcry, the millions who have joined the #FreeBritney movement over the past decade are — whether they know it or not — also highlighting problems that commonly stand in the way of disability rights.

“What is happening to Britney Spears is undeniably tragic,” said Robyn M. Powell, a disability scholar and visiting assistant professor at Stetson University College of Law. “It is also not at all surprising — especially for people with disabilities. The United States has a shameful history of denying reproductive freedom to people with disabilities, especially those who are also BIPoC or LGBTQ.”

In 2008, after a public struggle with mental health, Spears was stripped of the right to make her own decisions about her finances, her body and her relationships. In court, Spears described her conservatorship as “abusive” and compared it to “sex trafficking.”

Spears shared details of her past several years, including being placed on lithium against her will, which she testified incapacitated her. “I am not happy, I can't sleep. I'm so angry, it's insane. And I'm depressed,” she said.

While this severely constraining form of legal guardianship sounds outrageous, it is similar to many of the laws set in place to control people with disabilities.

“We are being treated like infants even though we are adults,” actress/comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid told MSNBC. “I hope that people realize that these types of human rights violations happen to the disabled community all the time.”

“She is exceptional,” Zayid said of Spears, “but not the exception to the rule.”

Several countries have had “eugenic laws” that restricted the reproductive rights of women with developmental disabilities in the past. In the U.S., a 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, legalized the forced sterilization of more than 70,000 people with disabilities, and has never been overturned. “Sterilization remains more common than we would like to admit, often done under the auspices that it is in the ‘best interest’ of people with disabilities,” Powell said.

For parents with intellectual disabilities, the child removal rates are as high as 40 to 80 percent.

The trampling of Spears’ reproductive rights exemplifies just how intertwined sexism and ableism can become. As we heard in her testimony, it can be an incredibly dehumanizing experience to be stripped of your reproductive freedom. "I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone," she told the court. "I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things.”

Spears also said she was prevented from seeing her boyfriend and her children under her conservatorship, also a common experience for people with disabilities, whose relationships are often dictated by family members or caretakers. When I worked as a counselor at a community center for adults with intellectual disabilities, we were told to obey the wishes of the family over the individual. It wasn’t unusual for patients to be denied the right to have intimate relationships because their families overrode their personal decisions; and the family doesn’t get questioned in the disability care 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 out of reach for many couples with disabilities. Many don’t wed for fear of facing “marriage penalties,” which can include losing health insurance or other benefits. (For this reason, many people with disabilities have to call their romantic partners “roommates” to accommodate these outdated and ableist laws.)

And once people with disabilities are able to marry or become parents, they are much more likely to have their children taken away from them. For parents with intellectual disabilities, childremoval rates are as high as 40 to 80 percent. For parents with physical disabilities, 13 percent cite 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 disability community.

“Disabled parents are more likely than nondisabled parents to have child welfare system involvement and to have their parental rights terminated,” Powell said. “Separations of families are often done based entirely on bias and speculation of how a parent’s disability may affect their parenting rather than an actual incident of abuse or neglect.”

We saw all of this play in 2007 when Spears lost access to her children. “Not only is Britney Spears being denied the right to marry and have more children, but she also has previously lost custody of her two sons after experiencing a mental health crisis,” Powell said. “Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.”

Powell added that, often, what debilitates children of disabled parents isn’t the disability, it’s the ableism. “Children need to be with their families. We need to repeal archaic laws that enable this separation. We need to implement supports to help families thrive.”

So while it’s paramount to #FreeBritney, it’s also crucial to recognize that her case exemplifies the tragic fate of countless disabled people in this country.