When Britney Spears took the stand at a Los Angeles hearing on Wednesday — speaking publicly for the first time since 2008 about her court-appointed conservatorship — she said a lot of things that people had been expecting to hear. The New York Times reported many of the details earlier in the week: In previous closed-door testimony, Spears said that, trapped in a restrictive conservatorship by her father, Jamie, she felt she had no power to make her own decisions. She had, for years, privately alleged that her father controlled her career, her money and almost every other aspect of her life, down to the color of her kitchen cabinets.
But until Wednesday, no one knew she’d lost the ability to make her own reproductive decisions.
“I have an IUD inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant,” Spears said. She wanted to go to the doctor to get it removed, she said, so she could have another baby — but the team overseeing the conservatorship wouldn’t allow it.
“They don’t want me to have ... any more children.”
Spears entered the conservatorship in 2008, after a highly public struggle with her mental health. A court deemed her unfit to make her own decisions, passing control to her once-estranged father and a lawyer. The arrangement, which places a vulnerable individual under another person’s authority for their own protection, was understood to be temporary at the outset but soon became permanent, with Jamie Spears overseeing his daughter’s $60 million fortune alongside a professional wealth management firm. A professional conservator came on board to oversee Britney Spears’s personal care in 2019.
Jamie Spears’s attorneys have previously said that the conservatorship was created to protect Britney Spears and that she had the ability to end the agreement at any time. But for years, fans wielding the hashtag #FreeBritney have argued that Spears, who has performed throughout the conservatorship, is capable of taking care of herself. (Jamie Spears’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment from The Lily.)
Of all the experiences Spears shared with the court Wednesday, including being cut off from friends and forced to work without vacation, many fans found her testimony about her intrauterine device to be the most unsettling. On social media, people said they were “sick,” “furious” or “incandescent with rage.” While it was awful to hear Spears describe her father controlling her time and her money, said Maria Phillis, an OB/GYN in Cleveland, it was another thing entirely to hear how her father controlled her reproductive future.
“A lot of people, especially women, have been told what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” Phillis said. For a lot of people, “this is a trigger point.”
When 23-year-old Danielle Fauteux heard about Spears’s comment, she thought about her own IUD. After insertion, she said, the device was so painful that she couldn’t stand up. For three weeks, she said, she thought about calling her OB/GYN and making an appointment to have it removed. While the pain eventually subsided, she said, she can’t imagine how she would have felt if she didn’t have the option to take it out.
If someone else was controlling the process, she said, “I would have felt so violated.”
Fauteux’s roommate, 23-year-old Paige Pope, also said she was initially shocked by Spears’s IUD experience, because she hadn’t understood the full extent of her father’s power as a conservator. But the shock quickly wore off, she said.
“After a few minutes I was like, ‘No, this makes sense, because our rights are always up for grabs.’”
Although Pope does feel empowered to make her own reproductive choices, her empowerment is “limited,” she said, because it’s entirely dependent on geography. She lives in New York City, where abortion is widely available. If she lived in a more conservative state, she added, it would be a different story.
Certain aspects of Spears’s experience feel familiar, said Leigh Senderowicz, a social demographer at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health who studies reproductive coercion.
Reproductive coercion, the act of controlling someone else’s reproductive health, has a long history in the United States, Senderowicz said. The medical and legal systems, she said, have worked together to try to control women’s reproductive choices, especially the choices of women deemed less worthy or capable of having children, including women of color, disabled women and women with mental health conditions.
“It’s not happening because of individual doctors or nurses or individual conservators,” she said. “The idea that some people should reproduce and some people shouldn’t is baked into our institutions.”
Although the term “eugenics” fell out of fashion after it was embraced by the Nazis in World War II, Senderowicz said, the underlying sentiment has endured. In the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer and many other Black women in the South underwent forced sterilizations, a procedure that became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Black women would go to the doctor for another procedure and be sterilized without their knowledge or consent, Senderowicz said. More recently, she said, there have been allegations of forced sterilizations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Doctors may also be reluctant to remove IUDs and implants when patients ask them to, Senderowicz said. Some feel strongly that it’s a superior type of birth control, she said, providing contraceptive coverage regardless of user behavior. If a patient complains of side effects with her IUD, Senderowicz added, some doctors might suggest they try other things to treat the side effects independently, rather than removing the IUD, even if that was the explicit request. Outside the United States, doctors are sometimes more forceful, she said. Senderowicz has studied trends in sub-Saharan Africa, where she says some doctors will outright refuse to remove a patient’s IUD early.
“You don’t need a doctor to stop taking the pill. You don’t need a doctor to stop using condoms. But you do need a doctor for these methods,” Senderowicz said. In this way, she said, IUDs can be a vehicle for reproductive coercion — as Spears’s comments suggest.
Since Pope heard about Spears’s IUD, she said, she’s been thinking about all the other people who might be experiencing something similar — people who don’t have the kind of status or platform that has allowed Spears to share her story. Those women, she said, might find themselves trapped in these situations forever, unable to control their own bodies.
The whole thing has “‘Handmaid’s Tale’ vibes,” Pope said. In the book, by Margaret Atwood, “handmaids” exist to bear children for the man in their family unit. The man dictates everything about their lives, including their bodies and reproductive health.
For Pope, the hearing is a turning point: “Now I hope she can finally be Britney Spears again.”