When Britney Spears announced that she was forced to use long-term birth control in the form of an IUD and wasn’t being allowed to have another child, the world was shocked. If the fight for reproductive rights usually centers on access to birth control and abortions, it’s in part because there’s no debate that forcefully preventing women from having children is an inhuman violation. It’s no wonder that, after her testimony, strong reactions in support of Britney Spears came from all perspectives and political sides.
While it might seem that the 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears by Samantha Stark was the necessary push that finally swayed public perception of Britney Spears’s conservatorship, longtime fans weren’t surprised by the news that her situation was abusive and controlling. Even when the conservatorship was implemented, some major outlets were already reporting on Britney Spears’s opposition to the situation, such as the 2009 Rolling Stone article that suggested that her life under conservatorship was a “prison.” More recent media coverage and public pressure seems to have helped Britney Spears finally make some progress in her legal battle, as she was able to hire her own lawyer in July 2021. A few days ago, news headlines even celebrated the fact that her father Jamie Spears would be stepping down as conservator. However, the filing actually stated that it would happen “when the time is right,” and her father is currently contesting the petition to have him removed. The situation is clearly far from resolved for Britney Spears.
Why has it taken over a decade for the public to really notice how abusive and controlling Britney Spears’s situation might be? Possibly, it is because the conservatorship was implemented following a very public mental health crisis that, at the time, seemed to justify an intervention. Many remember the media coverage of Britney Spears shaving her own hair off in a hair salon late at night in 2007. The next year, in 2008, she was twice placed on an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold. When her father filed for conservatorship, asking to be appointed as her guardian to oversee her daily life and finances, he claimed she suffered from dementia.
Some have questioned whether the conservatorship was truly necessary. According to the law, two types of conservators can be appointed by courts: a conservator of the person for someone who is “unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter” and a conservator of the estate for someone who is “substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.” These definitions highlight the high level of impairment that is required for a person to be put under conservatorship. In Britney Spears’s case, both types of conservators were appointed. However, Britney Spears has continued to release albums and go on tour in the US and internationally during the past decade, which suggests a level of performance in a high pressure environment that is not compatible with the basic requirements of conservatorship, especially conservatorship of the person. If she is not well enough to manage her own daily life, how is she able to record, rehearse, and perform at such a high level?
While Britney Spears might have required some help going through a divorce and a difficult custody battle all while navigating international fame and her career as a pop star, it is clear that her mental health issues have been used as a tool to control her life. According to her testimony, her father restricted all her decisions, from whom she dated to the color of her kitchen cabinets. She was also pressured to perform – including with a 102-degree fever – and had no control over her own finances beyond a weekly allowance. In hindsight, it seems like financial gain was the primary motivation behind forcing Britney Spears into a conservatorship, as her own father received financial compensation for acting as her guardian. One wonders if she was forced to be on long-term birth control because a pregnancy would mean a pause in her career and therefore less revenue.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a female performer has been denied the freedom to make personal life choices that could affect her performance and revenue. Decades earlier, a promising Black ballet dancer, Janet Collins, was sterilized without her knowledge and consent because her mother had approved the procedure. Janet Collins had eloped in 1939 at 22 years old, but soon regretted her decision due to her new husband’s infidelity. The marriage lasted only 9 months before the couple separated, and Janet Collins returned to live with her parents. Like Britney Spears, Janet Collins was going through a divorce that caused so much emotional distress that she required medical help. She consented to be admitted to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California, where she underwent a tubal ligation – without her knowledge or consent – in the fall of 1940, at the age of 23. According to Janet Collins’s biographer Yaël Tamar Lewin, Collins’s mother Alma was worried about her daughter’s mental health and believed that the sterilization would allow her to focus on her dance career instead of being “distracted by being married or having children.” It seems shocking that a parent would choose to approve permanent birth control like a tubal ligation without the consent of his or her adult child. Just as in Britney Spears’s situation, one cannot help but wonder whether the decision to restrict reproductive freedom was motivated by reasons other than the patient’s best interest.
Why was sterilization even suggested in the case of Janet Collins? At the time, the eugenics movement in the United States was at its peak of popularity. The movement was based on the theory that humanity could be improved by restricting reproduction to only those individuals with the most desirable physical and mental traits. In effect, eugenics was used to target minorities, such as immigrants and people of color, as well as those with mental illness, as they were considered to have undesirable hereditary traits. In California, where Janet Collins was hospitalized, the first eugenic sterilization law was passed in 1909 and led to the forced sterilization of more than 20,000 between 1909 and 1979. Since sterilization was viewed as a matter of public health, consent from the patients themselves was not a priority, as the story of Janet Collins demonstrates.
Janet Collins went on to become a successful dancer and choreographer and was the first Black ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1951. It took years for her to forgive her mother for causing her to be involuntarily childless. How harrowing it is to realize that over 80 years later in 2021, women are still being robbed of their reproductive freedom under the pretext of mental health. Britney Spears’s situation has been a stark reminder of how quickly a woman’s agency can be lost, especially under the guise of health concerns. If someone as famous, popular, and high-profile as Britney Spears could be forced to relinquish her autonomy for so long and in such a drastic way, what about everyone else? Who is advocating for those people, and how many might be in a similar situation with no recourse? Forced sterilizations of marginalized groups have recently surfaced again with accusations that inmates in California’s women prisons and immigrant women in ICE detention centers were being sterilized without consent, a chilling reminder that eugenic practices have not disappeared. How many more women have had their reproductive freedom restricted on the basis of physical or mental health concerns? And who is listening to them?
- Yaël Tamar Lewin, Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 64. ↑
- Lewin, Night’s Dancer, 66; 68. ↑
- Lewin, Night’s Dancer, 68. ↑
- Lewin, Night’s Dancer, 68. ↑