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Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Mirrors Reality for Millions with Disabilities

Guardianship System Subjects Many to a Range of Abuses

A "Free Britney" sign shows support for popstar Britney Spears who had a scheduled hearing in her conservatorship case at the County Courthouse in Los Angeles, June 23, 2021. © 2021 Chris Pizzello/AP Photo

“I have an IUD in my body right now that won’t let me have a baby and my conservators won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out,” pop star Britney Spears told a court last week.

Fans, influencers, activists, and members of the public rallied in support of Spears after the Wednesday hearing, loudly condemning the pop star’s treatment under the 13-year abusive guardianship, which granted her father legal authority to make decisions about her career, finances, and even her own body.

Spears is not alone. While the exact figures are not known, it is estimated millions of people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are deprived of legal capacity and placed under some form of guardianship. Just like Spears, this had led to a range of abuses, including forced medical treatment, forced contraception and coerced termination of pregnancies, involuntary confinement, forced living arrangements, and limited freedom of movement.

While investigating human rights abuses against children with disabilities in Serbia in 2015, I found authorities had forced many young women with disabilities to undergo coercive medical interventions while under guardianship. These included forced insertion of intrauterine devices (IUDs), administration of contraceptive pills without their knowledge, forced or coerced termination of pregnancy, and nonconsensual administration of pap smear tests. Medical staff acknowledged carrying out these interventions without consent of the women, but said the women’s guardians had given consent, which, under problematic guardianship laws in Serbia and elsewhere, is sufficient.

One woman who lived with her partner in one of the institutions was forced to terminate her pregnancy while four months pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby but her legal guardian and the medical professional in the institution decided against her will. 

What is happening to Spears and to the women I met in Serbia is a violation of their reproductive and other fundamental rights protected under international law, which requires governments to respect their rights to bodily autonomy, health, and to live free of violence. Restoring respect for these rights requires the guardianship system to be replaced by a system of supported decision-making that respects the autonomy, will, and preferences of all people with disabilities.

“I have not done anything in the world to deserve this treatment. It’s not OK to force me to do anything I don’t want to do,” Spears said. She indeed does not deserve this treatment – nor do millions of other people living under guardianship across the world. 

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