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#FreeBritney Shines a Light on Problematic Guardianship Systems

Millions of People with Disabilities Around the World Are Deprived of Legal Capacity

Britney Spears supporters pose for a photo outside a court hearing concerning the pop singer's conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, February 11, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

The hashtag #FreeBritney has been trending since the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears, and fans, influencers, and activists are campaigning to have the singer’s father removed as her legal guardian.

And they should. Under guardianship, Britney Spears has not had full control over her life since 2008. Instead, other people – mostly her father – have had legal authority to make decisions about her career, finances, and personal life.

Spears is not alone in deserving a hashtag and global outrage. While the exact figures are unknown, it is estimated that millions of people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are deprived of legal capacity and placed under some form of guardianship. Most of them have been deemed unable to make their own decisions just because they have a disability.

I’ve met many of them in my research and seen how harmful these practices can be, leading to a range of abuses, including forced treatment, involuntary confinement, forced termination of pregnancies, forced living arrangements, and limited freedom of movement. Many are deprived of the choice of where to live and whether and whom to marry, to sign an employment contract, or – like Britney – even decide on whom to visit and when.

“I basically just want my life back…I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself,” Spears can be heard in a recording published by Rolling Stone magazine in 2008.

I’ve heard this sentiment many times. One woman I met, Tatjana, is 47 but can’t travel to visit her daughter without permission from her legal guardian because she has a mental health condition. In fact, she can’t leave her town in Croatia without approval. It’s the same if she wants to move to another house, sign an employment contract, or even publish her poems.

As activists and fans intensify their efforts to free Britney from her father’s control, I hope they will also champion the abolishment of guardianship systems worldwide. We have a strong instrument to rely on: the UN Disability Rights Treaty, ratified by 182 countries around the world, which requires governments to break away from guardianship and instead provide a system of support for decision-making that respects the autonomy, will, and preferences of the person with the disability.

Let’s #FreeBritney and #EndGuardianship.

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