You’ve probably heard recently that Britney Spears has been quietly trying to gain control of her life and finances for several years. During a recent court proceeding, leaked to the press almost immediately, Britney announced that she has been forced to keep an IUD that she does not want due to her conservatorship, which is overseen by her father and a financial firm, Bessemer Trust Co. News outlets rushed to share this gross denial of individual rights and bodily autonomy, but many missed the mark, implying that Britney just isn’t incapacitated enough to warrant a conservatorship.
But the truth is conservatorships in the US are hugely problematic. For starters, they are largely unregulated, poorly tracked, and, often, incredibly difficult to end. As a result, many disabled communities and organizations are working toward the end of conservatorships altogether, instead advocating for a less invasive model called supported decision-making (SDM). The basic idea with SDM is that the person retains all of their legal rights and is able to get support with big decisions from people they choose and trust. Some states have formal supporters and others rely primarily on the person’s friends and family.
In Britney Spears’s case, we see the intersection of disability justice and sexual health. While IUDs are not the same as sterilization, her situation is reminiscent of the webinar RSEI educators presented last August about the history of forced sterilization in the United States. Much of these sterilization efforts were focused on poor, BIPOC, and disabled communities with the justification that it was in the best interest of society for these people to not reproduce. If this sounds like eugenics, that’s because it is. Furthermore, the tools used to determine a person’s capacity (IQ tests, for example) are subject to much criticism due to racial, cultural and other biases that exist both in them and in how people interpret them.
Even if effective and equitable tools could be developed to help assess a person’s capacity for learning or intelligence, guardianship laws leave a lot of room for manipulation and abuse. As Sara Luterman, disabled journalist who covers disability said in a recent interview with Slate, “when people think you’re crazy, nothing you say is believable. Everything can be undermined.”
There is a concept in applied behavioral sciences and disability circles that perfectly illustrates this point. You can read published material on it here. Basically, a person who isn’t disabled, or whose ability isn’t currently being called into question, has the right to skip work in favor of eating donuts and taking a nap. They might get written up at work if they don’t follow the standards for calling out sick, but generally nobody in their life will take that as a sign that they need to intervene. Disabled people don’t have that same right – if they skip work to eat donuts and nap, it is seen as further evidence of their inability to care for themselves, to make sound decisions, to effectively prioritize their needs. This doubts a person’s ability to know themselves and what they need on such a fundamental level that any variation from their routine (especially for what is perceived as ‘no reason’) is considered evidence of the need for invasive “support” and “protection.”
Britney’s experience is horrific, and it never should have happened. Not because she isn’t disabled enough, but because everyone deserves the right to make decisions, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ about their own body and life. It is critical for sex educators to do the work to combat internalized ableist values and provide the time, space, and tools our students need to learn, communicate, and care for themselves. We have to listen to disabled people, including our students, and let their experiences guide us in dismantling the ableism that permeates sexual health care and education.