The Intersection between Disability Rights and Reproductive Justice
by Shay Upadhyay
Pop icon Britney Spears has been subject to a court-imposed conservatorship since 2008. According to the California courts, where Spears resides, a conservatorship is defined as a “court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the “conservator”) to care for another adult (called the “conservatee”) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.” Conservatorships (also referred to as guardianships in some states) can trigger disability rights issues.
Conservatorships are only assigned to people who have been identified by the court with a disability and are deemed unable to care for themself in one or more aspects. They are complex and vary depending on each individual’s situation and the needs of their disability. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), conservatees can include people with psychiatric disabilities, developmental or intellectual disabilities, age-related disabilities like dementia, and other types of disabilities.
Conservatorships can be partial, meaning someone only needs help making financial decisions or medical decisions, or they can be total, allowing control of every aspect of a person’s life to another person. While conservatorships are designed to limit a person’s civil liberties for their own safety, if the power granted to the conservator is abused, the conservatee can be placed in far greater danger than before. Once a conservatorship is in place, only a court can remove the decision, making conservatorships under current law incredibly difficult to reverse for those without access to unbiased advocates and effective legal representation.
It should be noted that we do not know whether Spears identifies as someone with disabilities. Spears was put under a temporary psychiatric hold in 2008, when she was treated at a UCLA facility for mental health issues. At that time, her father, James Spears, was given a temporary conservatorship over her assets, estate, and business affairs. In October 2008, the conservatorship became permanent and continues to be in place, though her father stepped down as one of her conservators in September 2019. Her long-time “care manager,” Jodi Montgomery, has been a conservator since then, but her father remains co-conservator of her estate. It has been reported that he pays himself a $16,000 a month salary, which is double the allowance Spears is given, and has hired multiple professionals without Spears’ permission to evaluate her personal wellbeing on a weekly basis.
In a 24-minute statement given by Spears before a Los Angeles probate judge on June 23, 2021, she revealed disturbing details about her conservatorship and claimed she has been “traumatized” by the experience. Spears revealed that she has been prescribed and is taking medications she doesn’t want to be on, including Lithium, and she is unable to marry her boyfriend or drive in a car alone with him. Despite her conservators believing she cannot properly care for herself, Spears is on an intense rehearsal and performance schedule, having released four albums since the establishment of her conservatorship. She mentioned in her testimony that she was forced to attend ten hours of meetings a day, all seven days a week, for months just to be able to see her boyfriend and two children. Spears’ attorney, Samuel Ingham III, even called her a “high-functioning conservatee” while addressing the court in 2020. According to Spears, Ingham (whom she did not get to choose under the conservatorship) never told her that she was able to petition to terminate the conservatorship.
Under her conservatorship, Spears is not allowed to remove her Intrauterine Device (IUD) to become pregnant, thus restricting her bodily autonomy and demonstrating clear reproductive coercion. Reproductive coercion, as described by Johns Hopkins University researchers in a systematic review, is “a behavior that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman, with regard to reproductive health.” In Spears’ case, this includes her conservators restricting her autonomy by removing her IUD and preventing her from getting pregnant.
According to the National Council on Disability (NCD), there are currently 4.1 million parents with disabilities in the United States. Parents with disabilities face a number of societal barriers when it comes to raising their children, as our child welfare systems are inherently ableist and lack the cultural competency to assist people with disabilities. According to the NCD, between 40 and 80 percent of parents with intellectual disabilities have their children taken away from them.
At NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, we believe that every individual has the right to decide if, when, and how to form their families, and to parent in good health, in safety, and with dignity. This is no exception for people who identify with having disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works to protect parents and prospective parents with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the administration of child welfare programs, activities, and services.
While Spears’ case is high profile and gaining attention in the media, the U.S. has a long history of discriminating against people with disabilities and participating in reproductive coercion. The U.S. has initiated multiple forced sterilization campaigns against incarcerated individuals, disabled people, low-income women, and women of color. Forced sterilization is an act of violence and promotes eugenics-based practices of population control. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to uphold Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act, authorizing the State of Virginia to forcibly sterilize a person considered “feebleminded” and unfit to procreate. As a result, this case led to the sterilization of over 70,000 Americans, many of whom were incarcerated people and low-income people of color.
It was only until 2014, almost 100 years later, that California banned forced sterilizations of incarcerated individuals as a means of birth control in correctional facilities. Still, states continue to turn to sterilization operations as a means of population control. In 2017, a judge in Tennessee offered reduced jail time in exchange for voluntary sterilizations, justifying the decision by saying incarcerated individuals would be able to avoid paying future child support. Sterilizations without consent have also been a form of immigration control in the United States; just last year, it was reported that immigrant women detained at an ICE-contracted center in Georgia had their reproductive organs removed without their full consent. The act of preventing someone from getting pregnant through reproductive coercion is just as harmful as forcing a pregnant person to end their pregnancy.
Spears’ experience with her conservatorship is not unique. Abuse in conservatorships is common, whether it be emotional, financial, or physical. Each state handles its own conservatorship cases, but there is a lack of comprehensive data available to address gaps and abuses in the system. According to a 2019 report published by the National Council of Disability (NCD), “the national and state data on guardianship itself — let alone the demographics and type of disabilities of people subject to it — are scant to non-existent.” According to the report, most states do not have centralized data collection or tracking systems. On July 1st, 2021, Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Bob Casey (PA) requested the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide more information on the prevalence of conservatorship in the U.S. and the systems in place for data collection in different states.
Given how easy it is to abuse the powers of a conservatorship, disability rights advocates are pushing for a new model of support, called “Supported Decision-Making” to replace conservatorships. According to the ACLU, Supported Decision-Making allows people with disabilities to “keep their rights and their decision-making capacity.” Under Supported Decision-Making, an individual with a disability can build a network of people they trust to help them understand, make, and communicate their choices while retaining their personal legal rights. This can be done with or without the help of a court.
Ending conservatorships is merely the first step to achieving equality and seeking justice for the disabled community. The idea that the state and anyone except the disabled person whose case is being heard “knows best” about their own life choices is a gross reflection of how our society views members of the disabled community. We must recognize how the shadow of the eugenics movement continues to impact our country today and work to end the ableism that exists in all of our systems. We can use the case of Britney Spears, an international superstar, as an example of much-needed reform in each of our own communities.
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Coscarelli, Joe, et al. “Britney Spears’s Father Calls for Inquiry Into Singer’s Control Claims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 June 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/06/30/arts/music/britney-spears-father-conservatorship.html.
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National Council on Disability, “Turning Rights into Reality: How Guardianship and Alternatives Impact the Autonomy of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities” June 10, 2019. pp 41, https://ncd.gov/sites/default/files/NCD_Turning-Rights-into-Reality_508_0.pdf.
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“Seniors and Conservatorship (Conservatorship).” California Courts (Judicial Branch of California), 2021 Judicial Branch of California, www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-conservatorship.htm?rdeLocaleAttr=en.