Last November, a California judge finally freed Britney Spears from her 13-year-old conservatorship, which was originally put in place because she was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. Spears testified that during her conservatorship, overseen by her father, she had been forced to keep an IUD in despite wanting to have more children.
“Britney’s experience shocked a lot of people, but the horrible reality is it’s not unusual for guardians to have this power over disabled people’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights,” Ma’ayan Anafi, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, told Jezebel. “What’s unusual was her platform to share this. Most disabled people don’t get to share their stories of experiences like that, and they go under the radar, not recognized as as a major issue.”
According to a new study from NWLC and Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN), California is one of 31 states and the District of Columbia that continue to allow nonconsensual sterilizations, particularly targeting disabled and incarcerated people and migrants. At the height of the eugenics movement between 1909 and 1979, there were an estimated 20,000 forced sterilizations in California. During roughly this same period, at least 70,000 people in 32 states were subjected to involuntary sterilizations, primarily targeting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and disabled people, as well as poor people and migrants.
All of this was legal due to the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which ruled that the forced sterilization of a young disabled woman was constitutional. For decades, states and the federal government allocated thousands of dollars in public funding toward nonconsensually sterilizing populations deemed “undesirable” by the white supremacist eugenics movement.
Starting Jan. 1, survivors of forced sterilizations in California can apply for compensation from a $4.5 million state fund. California’s reparations program for survivors is an important step in the right direction, but it erroneously implies that involuntary sterilizations can no longer happen in the state. Between 2006 and 2010, doctors in California sterilized almost 150 incarcerated women.
Spears’ conservatorship ended just two months ago. Reports about an ICE doctor performing unwanted hysterectomies on migrant women came out in 2020. Still, we often discuss forced sterilizations as if they’re a relic of the past; this distant framing obscures how they remain legal in most states to this day.
“When you look at ways judges, guardians, and others talk about disabled people today, you see narratives persisting from the eugenics era—that disabled people can’t or shouldn’t make their own decisions about their bodies, that the state needs to make these decisions for their own good, that they’re a burden or threat or drain on the public,” Anafi said.
“Far too many disabled people have survived forced sterilization, which is part of a long, sordid history of forcibly sterilizing disproportionate numbers of Black, Native, Mexican/Chicanx, Japanese and Borikén/Puerto Rican women,” Lydia X. Z. Brown, director of policy, advocacy, and external affairs at AWN, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, not enough people know that forced sterilization is still widespread and completely legal.”
Most states threw out their original sterilization laws from the early 20th century shortly after World War II led to public rejection of Nazi ideas like eugenics. But this only paved the way for “a new type of forced sterilization law” that lets a judge decide whether to sterilize someone who can’t give consent, NWLC and AWN’s report says. These laws were passed relatively recently: California’s current law allowing forced sterilizations approved by judges passed in the 1990s, while the most recent laws took effect in Iowa and Nevada in 2019. Only two states—Alaska and North Carolina—explicitly ban forced sterilizations, while all other states are ambiguous on the issue.
Like Spears, people with or perceived to have disabilities can be legally assigned a conservator or guardian, and lose many of their basic rights and bodily autonomy in the process. NWLC and AWN note that conservators often “decide where they live, who they can be friends with, how to spend their money,” and even “what health care they can get”—they can prohibit someone from having an abortion, and seek the approval of a judge to have someone nonconsensually sterilized.
Despite the popularization of the term “marriage equality,” Anafi says disabled people under conservatorships can lose their right to marry (and vote, and care for their own children, for that matter). Disabled people who do get married can lose government support and other life-saving benefits, which can render them dependent on abusive partners. According to the CDC, disabled people are up to 10 times more likely than non-disabled people to face abuse.
An abusive spouse or partner can notably become a disabled person’s conservator, and ask a judge to approve their disabled partner’s forced sterilization. Reproductive coercion, a form of intimate partner violence, is already more prevalent than many realize in general: 15% of women experiencing physical violence from a male partner also reported birth control sabotage. A quarter of adolescent girls have reported that an abusive male partner attempted to nonconsensually impregnate them by interfering with their contraception. And disabled people are even more vulnerable to reproductive coercion from an intimate partner, especially as they’re often infantilized and denied comprehensive sexual health education and resources.
NWLC and AWN’s research shows traditionally “red” and “blue” states alike still have laws allowing forced sterilizations. Yet the issue slips under the radar at least in part because people of color, disabled people, incarcerated people, migrants, and other marginalized groups who are more likely to be targeted by forced sterilizations aren’t always centered in the reproductive rights movement. Anafi notes that widespread forced sterilization laws and the legal war on abortion rights that’s currently front and center at the Supreme Court “both stem from the same culture and policy landscape of reproductive coercion.”
That policy landscape notably includes abortion bans and restrictions supposedly passed out of concern for people with disabilities or people of color, via so-called sex, race, and disability-selective abortion bans. These laws, in addition to anti-abortion politicians’ racist talking points that call abortion “Black genocide,” allow them to “claim they’re acting on behalf of disabled people, of people of color,” Anafi says, “but they’re really attacking the reproductive rights of disabled people and people of color” by policing their reasons for seeking care.
Following 2020 reports about forced sterilizations at ICE facilities, some anti-abortion politicians and leaders offered hollow condemnations. But their movement draws many of its talking points and racist concerns—like its obsession with perceived threats to the white, American birth rate—from the eugenics movement, which regarded the pregnancies and birth rates of people of color and other “undesirable” populations as an existential threat to white civilization. The white nationalist group Patriot Front attended last week’s March for Life rally, echoing its usual “strong families make strong nations” dog whistle.
Across the country, state and federal lawmakers regularly attempt to write reproductive coercion into the law via abortion restrictions, normalizing similar coercive, abusive behaviors among intimate partners, and among conservators and disabled people. So long as the systematic control of marginalized people’s reproductive lives remains as widely accepted as it is, forced sterilization laws will continue to exist in most states with minimal public awareness or protest.
Since Spears first testified about her conservatorship last summer, her testimony that she was prohibited from having children was a wake-up call for many. Anafi hopes now that Spears is free, the vigilant activism and dedication to disability justice issues that #FreeBritney inspired will continue. “It’s really important we take this moment where people are becoming aware of the issues that those under conservatorships face, and turn it into large-scale change, rethinking all the systems and assumptions that allow disabled people to have their rights taken away.”