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Fighting for Reproductive Justice as #freebritney Ignites Debate

July 6, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Britney Spears (Wikimedia Commons)

The hashtag “#freebritney” has recently been flooding social media channels after the pop sensation claimed her 2008 court-mandated conservatorship withheld her from removing her intrauterine device, hindering her ability to reproduce, an issue which has been at the heart of many reproductive justice movements for decades. 

“In Britney Spears’ case, an IUD can be removed, but the fact that she is not allowed to choose when that happens in combination with the amount of time that the IUD has already been in place, which is 13 years, means that Spears’ has been stripped of making reproductive choices, and, the longer it persists, the more her case looks like forced sterilization,” said Rachel Johnson-Farias, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law.

Johnson-Farias said situations such as the one involving Spears have been seen for decades, and in many cases involve low-income people of color, women, and those with disabilities.

Around the turn of the 20th century, in the wake of reconstruction and suffrage and the rise of Jim Crow, eugenics rose to prominence as a convenient tool of reproductive oppression. 

Eugenics informed law and medicine in ways that continue to plague our legal and medical systems today, according to research by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Johnson-Farias first became involved with the reproductive justice movement through her work in California women’s prisons.

“Along with the staff at Oakland-based Justice Now, I documented human rights abuses in prison like forced and coerced sterilizations, imprisonment during reproductive years, and grossly negligent health care resulting in reduced reproductive capacity,” said Johnson-Farias. 

The U.S. 1927 Supreme Court Case, Buck v. Bell led to the forced sterilization of more than 70,000 — overwhelmingly poor people of color.

Several states, including California, had eugenics-based laws that allowed for the forced sterilization of people deemed intellectually disabled or unfit to care for themselves.

“Buck v. Bell codified a popular eugenicist idea that those of us who deviate from White supremacist norms, through race, gender, or ability, etc., should not be allowed to reproduce,” said Johnson-Farias. 

While individual states took action to challenge Buck v. Bell, the case was never overturned and much of its reasoning continues to support the forced and coerced sterilization of people in prison today. 

“Unfortunately, the number of impacted people is likely larger than we will ever know. One particularly telling function of the state stepping in as, or appointing guardianship, is the disturbing lack of accountability once appointed,” said Johnson-Farias.

Whether it be the state intervening to remove a child from their home, acting as guardian in carceral settings, or appointing guardians in conservatorships, Johnson-Farias said there are few enforceable standards and limited ways to challenge the choices of the state or the appointed guardian. 

Often, Johnson-Farias said that once a court affirms that someone is incapable of making decisions for themselves, the court rarely interrogates or tracks the decisions that either the state or the court appointed guardian makes on behalf of the disenfranchised person. 

“Unfortunately, much of what Britney Spears is facing is legal, common and highlights a central conundrum in our legal system: that which is morally bankrupt, abusive and inhumane is not necessarily illegal,” said Johnson-Farias.

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