Among the astounding claims pop star Britney Spears made this week before a probate judge in Los Angeles as she attempted to end her lengthy conservatoire stint, was one that profoundly shook experts on guardianship and reproductive rights. She said a team led by her father, who is her conservator, prevented her from having her IUD removed because the team didn’t want her to have more children.
“Forcing someone to use birth control against their will is a violation of basic human rights and physical autonomy, just as it would be to force someone to become or remain pregnant against their will,” said Ruth Dawson, Principal Policy Associate at Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports reproductive rights.
Court-approved forced contraception is rare in conservatories. But the specter it conjures up – forced sterilization – has a grim, long history in the United States, especially against poor women, women of color, and inmates. In the early 20th century, the state-sanctioned practice was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
Although the court moved away from this position in the 1940s and the growing consent canon gave rise to consensus that forced sterilization was inhuman, the practice continued to be tacitly tolerated.
Finally, in the late 1970s, most states repealed sterilization authorization laws, although allegations of forced hysterectomies and tubal ligatures in women in immigrant detention remain. As recently as 2014, California formally banned the sterilization of female inmates without consent.
The sparse law on the question at the Conservatory suggests what an outlier the Spears case might be. In 1985, the California Supreme Court denied a petition from the legal guardians of a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome who wanted her to have tubal ligation.
Usually, a restorer has temporary control over the finances and even medical care of an incapacitated person. Experts emphasized that Ms. Spears’ claim is unconfirmed. But if it’s correct, they said, the most likely rationale, even if suspicious, could be that Jamie Spears, her father, is trying to protect her finances from the father of a baby, possibly her boyfriend who is allegedly at odds with Mr. Spears is.
When a guardian is concerned that a community is making financially ill-advised decisions, “the cure is not to say they cannot reproduce,” said Sylvia Law, a health scientist at New York University School of Law. “It’s ineffable.”
According to fiduciary and inheritance experts, the few cases where a guardian, usually a parent, ordered a court to order contraception concerned severely disabled children.
“Such a child would not understand that a penis and vagina could make a baby,” said Bridget J. Crawford, an expert on guardianship law at Pace University Law School. “And that’s certainly not the case with Britney Spears.”
Eugenics was a major reason for female sterilization. In the Buck v. Bell in 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the right to sterilize a “moronic” woman who had been admitted to a state mental health facility, with Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes notoriously writing: “Three generations of morons are enough. ”
Although the opinion was never formally overturned, Judge William O. Douglas said in a unanimous court in the Skinner v. Oklahoma of 1942, in which the forced sterilization of certain convicted criminals was challenged that the right to procreation was fundamental. “Every experiment that the state carries out is irreparable to it,” he wrote. “He is forever deprived of a fundamental freedom.”
Although Ms. Spears was not sterilized, Ms. Crawford said if she was prevented from having her IUD removed it would be a proxy for sterilization, especially since she testified that she wanted to bear more children.
Melissa Murray, who teaches reproductive rights and constitutional law in NYU law school, pointed to another worrying element in the allegations made by Ms. Spears, who at 39, has been under her father’s tutelage for 13 years. Ms. Murray said Ms. Spears, an adult, appeared to have a legally constructed childhood.
“It’s unusual for her father to make the decisions we would expect parents to make in a teenager,” she added.