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Britney’s Conservatorship Is One Example of How the Legacy of Eugenics in the US Continues to Affect the Lives of Disabled Women

Michaela Kathleen Curran, University of Iowa

Britney Spears has been locked in a court battle
13 years in the making. While her father was suspended as conservator of her estate on Sep. 29, 2021, her conservatorship might not be terminated until the next hearing on Nov. 12.

During this conservatorship, she was limited in her ability to make everyday choices that most people take for granted.

One revelation that came out of
Spears’ emotional testimony was that she was not allowed to go off birth control.

“[T]his so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take [my IUD] out because they don’t want me to have children — any more children,” Spears said.

Spears’ anguish over the loss of her reproductive agency was palpable. And her story is one shared by disabled women across the country who are
denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

Ensuring the reproductive rights of disabled women is a professional and personal issue for me. I am a
public health researcher at the University of Iowa studying the social factors that influence accessibility for disabled people. I am also a disabled woman who has faced tough decisions about my own sexual and reproductive health.

Disabled women, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, are often trapped by
paternalistic decision-making. Courts and caregivers make choices about their lives with little input from the women themselves. Society views this approach as benevolent because women with physical and mental disabilities are often seen as sexually vulnerable and in need of protection for their own good. But these beliefs come from the long shadow of eugenics and the stigma and stereotypes that continue to dominate conversations around disability and reproduction.

The long shadow of eugenics

The United States has a history of forced sterilization policies that targeted disabled people, women of color, and those living in poverty.

These policies arose from the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which permitted the sterilization of Carrie Bell, a young woman deemed “feebleminded” by her adoptive family and, eventually, the Supreme Court. Buck v. Bell became a bellwether of the eugenics movement, which sought to eliminate “negative traits” through selective breeding. The ruling opened the door for an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 forced sterilizations in the U.S. in the 20th century.

Buck v. Bell and the U.S. eugenics movement has affected both state disability policies and reproductive health services. Today, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes that disability is not a reason for sterilization, and that people should be able to make decisions about their own health as much as possible. However, this is only an ethics guideline for medical professionals, not enforced by robust public policy.

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