Britney Spears puts spotlight on conservatorships’ history of forced birth control and sterilization

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Pop star Britney Spears won a big court victory on Wednesday. A Los Angeles judge ruled that she could choose her own attorney to represent her in her 13-year conservatorship fight with her father, Jamie Spears. Spears once again shared emotional testimony in court and told the judge she wants to bring charges against her father due to conservator abuse. 

Last month, Spears shared she’s been forced to perform, take drugs, and remain on birth control — all against her will. However, Spears’ inability to make her own reproductive choices doesn’t surprise advocates who work with women under similar conservatorships. 

Conservatorships and guardianship abuse often fly under the radar, says Sara Luterman, who wrote about reproductive freedom in conservatorships for The Nation. But due to Spears’ prominence as a celebrity, she says awareness around these cases has risen. 

“A lot of this has to do with a lack of attention. There are all kinds of things that happen to disabled people that I think that most people would consider unacceptable,” she tells KCRW. “It's terrible that this is happening to Britney Spears. But in a weird way, I'm sort of grateful because it means that people are paying attention to something that is in desperate need of reform.” 

Luterman says conservatees are often forced to use some form of birth control, or in extreme cases, surgical sterilization. In some states, like California, people under conservatorships have the right to refuse medical treatment, but they can be strong-armed into complying with the wishes of their legal guardian.

“Their conservator could say, ‘Okay, fine. But you aren't allowed to see your friends. I’m going to take you out of where you live if you like it, and I'm going to move you somewhere you like a lot less. I'm going to take you out of your job that you like,” she explains. “Those are all things that conservators can do. So while technically, conservatees can refuse medical treatment, including birth control, practically they can't.”

Luterman says the practice of sterilizing conservatees is based on the eugenics movement at the turn of the 20th century. 

“[And] instead of people sterilizing their relatives for the good of the race, they're sterilizing their relatives because they think it is in the best interest of the relatives.”

In states like California, it’s illegal to sterilize someone due to a developmental disability, but Luterman says legal guardians can provide another reason in order to get the treatment. 

She adds that the number of conservatees who have been forced to take birth control or have been sterilized is currently unknown.