“I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship I’m not able to get married or have a baby. I have an IUD inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the IUD out so I could start trying to have another baby, but this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children, any more children.”
The extraordinary claims made by pop star Britney Spears in her sworn testimony to a Los Angeles Superior Court last week about the legal agreement in place exerting control over all aspects of her life have made international headlines this week.
Britney outlined the extent of control that her father and her father’s lawyer, and a court-appointed professional acting as conservator, have had over her money, financial decisions and personal matters over the past 13 years. She described being forced to work non-stop, being prevented from driving or riding in her boyfriend’s car, or choosing her own lawyers or therapists, and being forced to take extremely powerful psychiatric drugs against her will, even though they leave her feeling drunk and nauseous.
Perhaps the most shocking of the revelations is the claim that, although Britney would like to get married and have more children, she is prevented from removing an intrauterine device (IUD) that prevents her becoming pregnant.
The court case has generated a huge amount of public sympathy for Britney Spears. The campaign #FreeBritney is trending on Twitter and many public figures are voicing their support for her.
Britney’s situation raises a number of important issues.
The first is the issue of eugenics. The authority that deems Britney mentally incapable of exercising her own reproductive choices evokes similar powers exercised historically in the US, which allowed eugenicists to forcibly sterilise an estimated 60,000 people, most of them women, on the grounds of mental illness or disability. Contemporary claims that “about 1,400 women were sterilized in California prisons between 1997 and 2010 ... and … that immigrant women are being sterilised in detention centres in the United States”, only fuel the uncomfortable suspicion that eugenics is not a dead letter in US policy, even today.
This is an issue of concern in Australia as well. Carolyn Frohmader, from Women with Disabilities Australia, has confirmed that the practice of involuntary sterilization “has been happening to women and girls with disabilities for decades.” In Australia, guardians can be appointed to make decisions on behalf of people who are prevented by “disability, which can be intellectual or physical, neurological, mental illness dementia”, from acting for themselves.
Ms Frohmader claims that “forced contraception is rampant”.
The ABC reports that “international bodies like the UN have made recommendations to the Australian government to enact national legislation to prohibit forced sterilisation, most recently in 2018”.
The second issue is that of “reproductive coercion.”
Planned Parenthood has come out in support of Britney’s right to refuse invasive contraception, positioning itself as the champion of the oppressed, in righteous opposition to “reproductive coercion”. The President of Planned Parenthood Alexis McGill Johnson tweeted in support of Britney:
“We stand in solidarity with Britney and all women who face reproductive coercion. Your reproductive health is your own – and no one should make decisions about it for you. #FreeBritney.”
Reproductive coercion is a term used to refer to behaviour that interferes with a woman’s autonomous decision making in regards to her body and reproductive decisions.
“Specifically this may take the form of birth control sabotage (such as removing a condom, damaging a condom, removing a contraceptive patch, or throwing away oral contraceptives), coercion or pressure to get pregnant, or controlling the outcome of a pregnancy (such as pressure to continue a pregnancy or pressure to terminate a pregnancy).”
Planned Parenthood’s declarations of solidarity with Britney might be more believable if its own historical and current practices didn’t contradict these claims. In an opinion piece in the New York Times a few months ago, the president of Planned Parenthood published a mea culpa, acknowledging the organisations’ problematic and racists origins, and admitting that its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a flawed individual who supported involuntary sterilisation, had ties with the KKK, and supported unethical practices:
“The first human trials of the birth control pill — a project that was Sanger’s passion later in her life — were conducted with her backing in Puerto Rico, where as many as 1,500 women were not told that the drug was experimental or that they might experience dangerous side effects.”
Even today, women have shared their own concerns, based on personal experience, that the practice of abortion and eugenics are closely linked, following pressure from the medical establishment to abort babies suspected of abnormal development or disability. One woman described her conversation with her doctor in this way:
“I repeatedly tried to wrap up the conversation; she repeatedly tried to focus on how there could be something wrong with my baby. Neither of us used the word ‘abortion’, but it was obvious she was trying to steer our conversation into a discussion about it. I felt like she was trying to convince me to care about something, a [Cystic Fibrosis] diagnosis, that I didn’t care about – like she was trying to convince me to un-want my pregnancy.”
In terms of its current practice, studies show that the reasons that women seek out abortion include: an inability to afford a baby; lack of practical and/or emotional support; the belief that having the baby will fatally compromise any hope of further education or career success; opposition to the pregnancy from abusive or unusupportive partners.
As an abortion provider, these are forms of “reproduction coercion” that Planned Parenthood works to facilitate. It is not their habit or practice to ask women and girls why they are requesting abortions; there is no part of their procedure that involves offering alternatives and any such efforts would clearly work against their own business model.
Rather than address the issues that leave many women feeling that they have no choice but to abort:
“Planned Parenthood helps such women end their pregnancies and then sends them home. Home to poverty, unemployment, educational stress, crushing family responsibilities, or an abusive partner.”
If Planned Parenthood really wanted to stand with women and fight against “reproductive coercion”, it would take serious steps to stop its organisation inadvertently facilitating sex trafficking of minors, as was uncovered in 2017. Despite several Planned Parenthood facilities having been caught on video covering evidence of child sex trafficking and providing abortions to 14 and 15 year old sex workers, a former employee claimed that rather than training employees how to identify and report sex trafficking, the training efforts were directed at how to spot undercover journalists and not get caught next time.
It is hard to imagine a more egregious form of “reproductive coercion” than that endured by trafficked children. If there was a shred of sincerity in Planned Parenthood’s claimed opposition to “reproductive coercion”, this was the moment to stand up. If we are to judge Planned Parenthood by its deeds, rather than its empty words, then there is no reason to give airtime to its claims of solidarity with Britney’s situation.
Rather, it seems that Planned Parenthood is exploiting the opportunity created by Britney’s media moment for its own propagandistic purposes. This gaslighting is a continuation of, rather than a departure from, its long history of misrepresenting itself as the champion of female autonomy. Planned Parenthood is very selective about the type of “reproductive coercion” it is prepared to oppose in practice.
At the time of publication, it has been reported that Britney’s request to end the conservatorship has been denied.