Britney Spears was 26 when a judge took away autonomy over her body, finances, and relationships, supposedly in her best interest. Since then, she claimed she was forced to have an IUD, take medications, and made to perform against her will for the past 13 years. The revelations against her “abusive” legal arrangement come after a 2019 social movement to #FreeBritney began advocating for the celebrity (USA Today). Despite the termination of her guardianship, the case for conservatorship reform intersects a larger movement for disability rights. Spears’ conservatorship’s problems are not exclusive; instead, they highlight a broader issue affecting disabled people.
A conservatorship is when a judge appoints a guardian, or a conservator, over an individual’s finances and personhood if a court finds them unable to care for themselves or susceptible to manipulation. A parent, lawyer, or professional service provider could be tasked with making personal or financial decisions or setting up medical appointments. However, most conservatorships give all of the conservatee’s rights to the appointed conservator.
• Follow the work of disability advocates like Imani Barbarin, Haley Moss, and
Mia Ives-Rublee who have been advocating for conservatorship reform.
• Support organizations like Disability Rights Florida that provide free services to disabled people needing legal advocacy. Find one nearest you using this directory.
• Consider how centralizing Britney Spears as the “face” of the conservatorship reform movement ignores thousands of disenfranchised disabled folks who have already lost their rights.
• Demand the passing of legislation like S.591 and H.R.4545, aimed at protecting the rights of folks in conservatorships and adding state oversight, H.R.4438, that would prevent forced contraception for conservatees, and SB 1010 and HB 681, that would create a supported decision-making law.
Liberties like marrying, voting, driving, or seeking and retaining employment are controlled. Other rights like the ability to sue, apply for governmental benefits, manage money or property, decide where to live, consent to medical treatment, and choose your friends are controlled as well (National Council on Disability).
Conservatorship laws vary by state, with no system in place to track the number of conservatees, the background of the guardians, or the extent and terms of these guardianships (NCD). However, the NCD estimates that about 1.3 million people with psychiatric, developmental, intellectual, or age-related disabilities are subjected to these arrangements in the United States (ACLU). It’s common for people between 18 to 22 years old to routinely transition into these guardianships under the recommendation of an educator, creating a school-to-guardianship pipeline (NCD).
Conservatorships restrict the civil rights and liberties of the conservatee. It’s rare for a person to leave their conservatorship unless their guardian allows them to obtain legal representation. A lack of state data and oversight means exploitation and abuse of the system can continue unchecked.
For instance, a video surfaced of Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichol being prevented from talking to a friend by her son and conservator. Friends of Nichols are fighting to terminate her conservatorship with her son, whom they say has been isolating her and making decisions against her wishes (People).
Disabled people are stripped of their independence based on false, ableist notions that they are inherently incapable of taking care of themselves. Supposedly, “well-meaning” interventions to limit the autonomy of disabled people include invasive reproductive methods like forced sterilization (NCB). These restrictions keep people with disabilities dependent and deny their autonomy and desires.
For Spears, this arrangement occurred after a series of mental health issues played out publicly in 2007. Most people are given the grace to make mistakes, but Britney was quickly disenfranchised. She recently talked about the injustices she faced in her conservatorship, including allegedly being forced to have an IUD (USA Today). While shocking, reproductive coercion and forced sterilization have been used against disabled women, especially women of color, to prevent “undesirable” traits and disabilities from spreading.
With the Buck v. Bell ruling, the Supreme Court endorsed the coerced sterilization of 70,000 predominately Black, Latinx, or Indigenous, poor, disabled, or “promiscuous” women. While individual states have stopped practicing this form of sterilization, this eugenic practice was never overturned (Bitch Media). Today, ICE performs non-consensual hysterectomies on immigrants in detention centers (The Guardian).
Bodily autonomy, human health, and dignity are constantly threatened by ableist and misogynistic practices, ideas, and institutions. That’s why conservatorships should be a last resort. Alternatives like supported decision-making allow people with disabilities to retain their rights while building a community of supporters that empowers them to make their own decisions (ACLU). Considering what’s at stake, the decision between the two models shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Spears’ case highlights the challenges to be “heard on any level” for people who have a disability or mental illness in this country. Despite her influence and capital, she was defenseless for over a decade in convincing a court that she was a person worthy of “a life” and the “same rights as anybody” else. So for the thousands of disenfranchised disabled folks who lost their voice in the process, conservatorship reform is a restorative act of liberation.
• Conservatorships are restrictive and often irreversible arrangements that strip disabled people of their basic human rights.
• State governments collect limited information on conservatorships, allowing abuse to go undetected.
• Historically, forced sterilization has been used on disabled women to keep them from procreating.