Britney Spears’ forced birth control has a long, dark history in the United States

Øn Tuesday, Britney Spears described the nightmarish legal quagmire she’s been trapped in before a California court. Speaking publicly for the first time about the conservatorship that was long rumored by fans and media alike to be oppressive, controlling and not in the singer’s best interests, Spears described a Kafkaesque situation in which she has been at the mercy of her conservator’s whims.

She is not allowed to get her nails done or change the color of her kitchen cabinets; she is not allowed to drive, or to ride in her boyfriend’s car. More seriously, she referred repeatedly to being “punished” when she refused her conservators’ wishes. Under her conservatorship, Spears has been forced to work against her will and was forcibly institutionalized when she refused. She has not been permitted to choose her own lawyers or therapists. Most disturbingly, Spears is not allowed to refuse medications recommended by her conservators, not even the extremely strong psychiatric drug lithium. And though she says she wants to have another child, Spears is not allowed to remove her IUD.

Spears’ fame and fortune have added peculiar irony to her situation. Though she is lavishly wealthy, she can’t control or spend her own money; though she is world-renowned and uncommonly successful, she cannot live the life of glamour or opportunity that her success would afford. 反而, her life sounds claustrophobic, small, confined to the places her conservators say she can go, the people her conservators say she can see.

Other people can – and do – speak publicly about her, but she is not permitted to speak for herself. The conservatorship has placed Spears in a position of legal childhood, deprived of even the most basic freedoms and prerogatives of adult life when she is in a position to enjoy the most lavish ones. More than anything, it’s hard not to see in her situation an enormous amount of wasted potential and time.

But though Spears’ money and fame make her case unique, she is hardly alone in having her future curtailed and her self-determination revoked by a callous state and family members with questionable motives. Reproductive and disability rights advocates have been quick to point out that reproductive coercion of the kind that has been inflicted on Spears is all too common.

在 1923, 当她 17, Carrie Buck was raped by Clarence Garland, the nephew of her foster parents, Alice and John Dobbs, and became pregnant. Embarrassed, the Dobbs had Carrie committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, on grounds of “incorrigible behavior and promiscuity”. Buck gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, while incarcerated, and was sterilized against her will soon thereafter, under Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act. Buck sued, and lost: the US supreme court declared her forced sterilization legal in the 1927 case Buck v Bell. After the decision, dozens of states rushed to pass their own eugenics bills, and soon, forced sterilizations, primarily of women, were a routine part of American prison, mental health and welfare systems. Forced sterilizations became so common among Black women in the south that they acquired a grim nickname: the “Mississippi appendectomy”. In the decision endorsing her sterilization, the supreme court justice Oliver Wendall Holmes summarized his opinion of Buck’s family this way: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

It was impossible not to see the shades of Carrie Buck – a young woman demonized for her sexuality, denied her freedom, declared mentally incompetent without much evidence and ultimately sterilized – in Spears’ story.

During the heyday of American eugenics that followed the Buck v Bell ruling, it is estimated that 多于 60,000 人们 in the US were sterilized against their will, most of them women. The practice was especially widespread in Puerto Rico, where it’s estimated that one-third of the female population was sterilized, often as a matter of course in the aftermath of a birth or while women were under anesthesia for other procedures. The practice of eugenicist forced sterilization is by no means a thing of the past: 关于 1,400 women were sterilized in California prisons between 1997 和 2010, and Ice is alleged to have been sterilizing immigrant women in its detention centers as recently as last year.

For those like Spears, who have been placed under conservatorships in response to mental health issues, their reproductive freedom has been stripped away from them with remarkably little recourse. In more than half of states, conservators are permitted to inflict not just long-term birth control, like Spears’ IUD, but permanent sterilizations on those deemed unfit to make the decisions for themselves.

But who, exactly, gets deemed unfit? Sanity is a slippery thing and mental health a difficult status to assess: historically, many have been deemed insane for simply having unpopular opinions, or for behaving in ways that were offensive to common attitudes and contrary to convention. This is particularly true of women, who have a long history of being deemed insane for trivial reasons by those who are either committed to misogyny 或者 interested in their money.

In the case of Carrie Buck, it’s not clear that she really was as “imbecilic” as the supreme court claimed. Rather, it seems that her case was less about mental illness than about moralism. Maybe the same could be said about Britney Spears, who after an acute mental health episode in 2007 和 2008, appeared in the courtroom this week competent, knowledgable and self-aware.

There is no justification for forcibly sterilizing anyone, but in Spears’ case, the IUD issue underscores the growing evidence that her conservatorship has become less about protection and more about control. Speaking of a conversation on the phone with her father, her primary authority under the conservatorship, Spears said, “I cried on the phone for an hour and he loved every minute of it. The control he had over someone as powerful as me … He loved it.”

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