Britney Spears is caught in a 13-year court battle. Although her father was suspended on September 29, 2021, her estate administrator may not be terminated until the next hearing on November 12.
During this supervision period, her ability to make everyday choices that most people take for granted is limited.
One revelation drawn from Spears’ emotional testimony is that she is not allowed to cancel birth control measures.
“[T]His so-called team won’t let me see a doctor [my IUD] Because they don’t want me to have children—no more children,” Spears said.
Spears’ pain of losing fertility is obvious. Her story was shared by disabled women across the country, who were deprived of the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
Ensuring the reproductive rights of disabled women is a professional and personal issue for me. I am a public health researcher at the University of Iowa, studying the social factors that affect the accessibility of people with disabilities. I am also a disabled woman and face difficult decisions regarding my own sexual and reproductive health.
Disabled women, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, are often subject to paternalistic decision-making. The courts and caregivers make choices about women’s lives with little input. The society considers this method to be benevolent, because women with physical and mental disabilities are usually regarded as sexually vulnerable groups and need to be protected for their own interests. But these beliefs come from the long shadow of eugenics and the stigma and stereotypes that continue to dominate the conversation about disability and reproduction.
The long shadow of eugenics
The United States has a history of mandatory sterilization policies for people with disabilities, women of color, and people living in poverty.
These policies originated from the Supreme Court case in 1927 Buck v. Bell, Which allowed the sterilization of Carrie Bell, a young woman who was adopted by an adopted family and ultimately regarded as “mentally handicapped” by the Supreme Court. Buck v. Bell Become the leader of the eugenics movement, which attempts to eliminate “negative traits” through selective breeding. The ruling opened the door to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 forced sterilizations in the United States in the 20th century.
Buck v. Bell The eugenics movement in the United States has influenced state disability policies and reproductive health services. Today, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes that disability is not a reason for sterilization and that people should be able to make decisions about their own health as much as possible. However, this is only a code of ethics for medical professionals and has not been enforced through strong public policies.
Stigma, stereotypes and reproductive institutions
Stigma refers to the discrimination and exclusion faced by individuals or groups when certain characteristics are marked as unpopular. People with disabilities often suffer stigma because their bodies are beyond the “normal” level considered by society.
One way to stigmatize women with disabilities is that they are often stereotyped as uninterested, asexual, or unable to obtain consent. These stereotypes hinder honest dialogue with health care providers, sex education teachers and others on access to reproductive health care and contraception. Because of these assumptions, women with disabilities also reported barriers to accessing family planning counseling.
Parental style, or when authority figures restrict the freedom of individuals or groups in what they consider to be their best interests, can also affect the sexual autonomy of persons with disabilities. One of its manifestations is to confirm through consent, which is a legal strategy that attempts to measure whether persons with disabilities have the ability to consent to sexual relations.
Although it should protect persons with disabilities from sexual abuse, preventive activities do not necessarily equate to protection. Regardless of their consent decision status, persons with disabilities still face a greater risk of sexual abuse and violence. Interviews with women with mild intellectual disabilities revealed that they felt unable to report sexual abuse and lacked social support and the ability to protect themselves.
The consent decision may also prevent access to sex education because it is considered unnecessary. Inadequate sexual and healthy relationship education is a risk factor for sexual abuse and violence. Compared with their non-disabled peers, women with disabilities are less likely to receive formal sex education; if they do, then the age-appropriate time is usually over. For example, a disabled woman who was considered incapable of consent was told by her high school that she was “free” from sex education, but was not asked if she wanted to attend classes.
Towards reproductive justice
Spears’ supervision revolves around the stereotype that people with disabilities cannot manage their lives. However, in these 13 years, she has produced four albums and conducted several world tours. She is still not allowed to act according to her desire to have children, which proves the enduring stigma surrounding disability, especially mental illness.
Recognizing the reproductive rights of disabled women is to promote reproductive justice for all women. This includes ending what one research topic calls the “snarling silence” surrounding sterilization, supporting evidence-based education, and fighting disability health stereotypes.
The slogan of the rights of persons with disabilities, “There would be no us without us” conveys that persons with disabilities know what is best for them and should not be excluded from conversations about their own health. This includes reproductive rights.
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