What #FreeBritney Can Teach Us About Reproductive Autonomy
odds & ends·
5 min read
by Meg Loughman | September 23, 2021
Update: As of November 12, 2021, Britney Spears' conservatorship has been terminated.
In a public hearing that held the attention of millions around the world, popstar Britney Spears appeared before a Los Angeles courtroom via Zoom on June 23 to expose the reality of her conservatorship situation. After living under this arrangement—which had been primarily overseen by her father, Jamie Spears—for 13 years, the 39-year-old bravely spoke out about the abuses and traumas she endured, calling for her father’s removal from the conservatorship.
There’s a lot to unpack in Britney’s 24-minute statement. She explained that she has been depressed, overworked, and denied basic human rights. Perhaps most notably, she expressed her desire to “be able to get married and have a baby,” a possibility held hostage from her as her conservators have refused procedures to remove her IUD — which immediately sparked public outcry.
The Internet took to expressing their collective outrage about Britney’s conservatorship, with many wondering how such an unfair and cruel situation could even be legal. Unfortunately, the reality is that Britney’s experience of losing her reproductive autonomy is only one of many in a long-standing history of “people with disabilities—most often people of color—being forcibly sterilized, forced to end pregnancies, or losing the right to raise their own children.”
what is reproductive autonomy?
Let’s get technical for a second. As defined by the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, reproductive autonomy is “having the power to decide and control contraceptive use, pregnancy, and childbearing.” A research group at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) called Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) expands this definition to include a person’s power to make decisions about abortion, as well.
In a 1927 landmark case regarding reproductive autonomy laws in the United States, Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional to allow for the sexual sterilization of those deemed to be ‘unfit’ or those with intellectual disabilities, citing the need to protect the well-being of the patient and the welfare of society. Of course, this is nowhere near the only instance of state-sanctioned eugenics in the U.S. — unfortunately, sterilization, racism, and ableism have long gone hand-in-hand, unchecked and protected by the American legal system.
When looking back at precedents like this one, we can more clearly see the insidious reality of the legal system that upholds cases like Britney’s conservatorship. For disability rights activists, migrant rights activists, Black and Indigenous women, and trans people, this is no new conversation. Groups like SisterSong, ReproAction, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, to name only a few, have worked to expose these systemic issues and continue the fight for reproductive autonomy.
the movement for reproductive justice
SisterSong, also known as the Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, was founded in Atlanta in 1997. Their central mission is to “build an effective network of individuals and organizations to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities.”
Since their inception, SisterSong has used their grassroots tactics to create leadership development programs for women and youth of color, organize politically, and host events featuring speakers with the likes of Stacey Abrams. Most recently, they made headlines when they were named as plaintiff in a high-profile lawsuit challenging Georgia’s infamous “heartbeat” ban abortion law. For decades, they have fought for human rights by way of bodily autonomy and access to contraceptives, abortion, and more.
When it comes to elevating the grassroots to the courtroom, groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights have been pivotal in expanding whose reproductive autonomy is protected by the legal system. Founded in 1992, this collective of lawyers and human rights advocates has championed these issues in courts of law around the world. Their legal victories have included issues like “access to life-saving obstetrics care, contraception, maternal health, and safe abortion services, as well as the prevention of forced sterilization and child marriage,” and have made real change to laws and policies in dozens of countries worldwide.
It is because of groups like these—whose work aims to dismantle these oppressive structures standing in the way of reproductive autonomy and justice—that we are able to have these conversations today. It’s important to give credit where it’s due when it comes to who has paved the way for this work and advocacy, especially the ones who center marginalized communities, like SisterSong.
how does Britney’s conservatorship fit in with all of this?
Thanks to her massive fanbase and following, Britney’s case gave a platform for amplifying these ongoing issues to a larger audience than ever before, with the widely-circulated #FreeBritney hashtag effectively raising awareness about the singer’s situation. The New York Times released a documentary entitled “Framing Britney Spears” that gave a closer look into her conservatorship than had ever been publicly revealed prior. On July 20, Congress even introduced the “Free Britney” Act, a bipartisan effort to “restore and protect the rights of the roughly 1.3 million Americans under conservatorship.”
But that’s not all: as of August 12, Jamie Spears stepped down as the conservator of his daughter’s estate, following public outcry about the conservatorship abuses that Britney and her supporters brought to light. While the details of this transition are still to be determined, Britney has now been legally allowed to hire her own lawyer to challenge her conservatorship — and the future of her situation hangs in the balance.
While the #FreeBritney movement has highlighted the need for conservatorship reform, it has also helped call into question whose welfare, exactly, is being protected by the American legal system — bringing the focus back to those who have historically been fighting for reproductive autonomy. Awareness is the first step to initiating change within this framework, but we also need to remember to bring that same energy and activism to all people who have been denied their reproductive autonomy — and who don’t have the same media attention, platform, or lawyers to advocate for their rights.
What was your knowledge of reproductive justice movements before #FreeBritney? Where do you think media coverage on the issue has fallen short? Let us know in the comments below.
by Meg Loughman