Illustration of two pregnant persons in wheelchairs.

disability rights

Disabled People Still Don’t Have Reproductive Freedom

On this 31st anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Britney Spears conservatorship case is glaring reminder that our laws are still stacked against disabled parents and prospective parents.

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Since my mid-20s, I have been offered a hysterectomy by my doctors more times than I can count. These offers are not being made based on medical necessity—there is no reason to believe that a pregnancy would be dangerous for me or a future baby—but instead, an assumption that I should not have children. Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique; they reflect an enduring belief that disabled people, like myself, are unfit to raise children.

Thirty-one years ago, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed with the promise of “equality of opportunity” for people with disabilities. Nonetheless, disabled people still experience reproductive oppression, including involuntary sterilization, coerced abortion, limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, and loss of custody of their children. These inequities are even more pronounced for multiply-marginalized people with disabilities. 

Last month, Britney Spears delivered a heartbreaking statement pleading for the court to end a 13-year conservatorship. For 24 minutes, Spears provided a long list of abuses she has allegedly sustained, including surveillance, confinement, forced medication and treatment, and unjust work demands. However, one detail stood out as especially egregious and also completely relatable: Spears would like to get married and have more children but cannot because her conservators will not allow her IUD to be removed.

The contrasting responses to Spears’s testimony between people with and without disabilities are a telling commentary on the state of reproductive freedom for disabled people. Using #FreeBritney, fans, celebrities, and public officials continue to express disgust and surprise that such reproductive oppression is legally happening in the United States. People with disabilities, conversely, while angry, are not surprised that Spears’s conservator is exercising reproductive control over her, recognizing that such efforts are illustrative of the United States’ continuing practice of oppressing disabled people’s reproductive rights. 

It is important to situate the recent revelations of the reproductive control being exercised by Spears’s conservator within the nation’s lengthy and disgraceful history of weaponizing reproduction to oppress people with disabilities and other marginalized communities. The belief that disabled people should not be parents dates back to the eugenics era in the early 20th century when people with disabilities and others deemed “unfit to procreate” were forcibly sterilized. In the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state compulsory sterilization laws were constitutional. Buck was a “feebleminded” woman who was institutionalized at 17 years old after being raped by a relative of her foster family. She was the daughter of a “feebleminded” woman committed to the same institution. After giving birth to Vivian, also assumed to be “feebleminded,” the institution sought to sterilize Buck per Virginia’s compulsory sterilization statute. Notably, years later, researchers discovered that neither Buck nor her mother or daughter had disabilities but rather were institutionalized because they were poor. Of course, even if she was disabled, it should not be acceptable to forcibly sterilize a person.

This troubling decision led to more than 30 states passing laws that allowed for forced sterilization. By the 1970s, an estimated 70,000 Americans, many of whom had disabilities, were sterilized against their wishes. Sadly, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned, which means it continues to be viewed as good law.

Spears’s heartbreaking experiences are a glaring reminder that nearly 100 years after the Buck v. Bell decision, reproductive freedom is still denied to far too many disabled people. While Spears has not technically been forcibly sterilized, she is being prevented from removing her IUD, leading to the same result as sterilization: stopping her from procreating.

Today, these eugenic ideologies manifest themselves through prejudicial policies and practices that discriminate against parents and prospective parents with disabilities. Despite the ADA, parents with disabilities routinely have their children removed by the child welfare system, often based on presumptions that their disability will make them unable to care for their children. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) placed Sara Gordon’s two-day-old daughter in foster care after Gordon had trouble feeding the infant. Rather than help the new mother, the hospital and DCF assumed that Gordon would be an unfit mother because she had an intellectual disability. Eventually, the federal government got involved in her case, and after more than two years, the mother and daughter were finally reunited. 

Disabled parents are also less likely to be awarded custody or visitation rights of their children in family court. In fact, because of the known discrimination by family courts, some parents with disabilities have remained in abusive relationships out of fear they would not be granted access to their children if they left. This is especially troubling because women with disabilities are 40 percent more likely than nondisabled women to experience intimate partner violence. 

The persistent stereotypes about the parenting abilities of people with disabilities are also experienced by prospective parents with disabilities. People with disabilities are being denied the opportunity to adopt children or become foster parents simply because they have a disability. Of course, that is not surprising given that other communities, such as prospective LGBTQ parents, are increasingly denied the opportunity to adopt or foster children, which was recently reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The notion that disabled people are incapable of raising children also results in inadequate access to reproductive health services and information. People with disabilities often face physicians that encourage them to terminate pregnancies and undergo hysterectomies to prevent future pregnancies. Disabled people are also often denied appropriate sex education because it is presumed to be unnecessary.

As Spears’s recent testimony illustrates, guardians—also known as conservators in some states—play a role in suppressing the reproductive freedom of people with disabilities. Indeed, forced contraception is routinely imposed on people with disabilities under guardianship. Notably, recent estimates suggest more than 1.3 million disabled people currently have guardians, and many are likely facing similar restrictions as Spears.

It is unclear whether Spears identifies as having a disability. However, in 2013, she disclosed in her documentary I Am Britney Jean that she has bipolar disorder, which may be considered a disability under the ADA. Further, even if she doesn’t identify as disabled, her reproductive freedoms are restricted because the courts have determined that she needs a conservator. Thus, the courts have deemed her to have a disability.  

When I listened to Spears in college, I never imagined that our lives would intersect. Yet today, more than three decades since Congress passed the ADA, Spears, me, and millions of disabled people are contending with pervasive perceptions that we are unfit to have children. “Equality of opportunity” will never be fully realized until reproductive justice for people with disabilities is achieved.

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