- The New York Times’ documentary about Britney Spears described her conservatorship as unusual for young people.
- Disability rights activists say untold numbers of Americans are stripped of agency right out of school.
- An activist told Insider the arrangements are rooted in the eugenics movement.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Britney Spears’ public plea to end her conservatorship shook the internet as the singer shared new allegations about the arrangement.
In a testimony, Spears said her father and his chosen lawyer controlled nearly every aspect of her life for 13 years, from her schedule to her reproductive decisions. She said she was not allowed to choose where she lived, who she saw, or even whether to remove her contraception, and IUD, to have a baby.
The #FreeBritney movement, calling for the end of the conservatorship, has long highlighted how unique this situation is.
However, another theme emerged in the conversation this week: people with disabilities who have been fighting against conservatorships for decades.
“This is a much bigger issue that impacts people every single day, and we just don’t think twice,” lawyer and disability rights advocate Haley Moss, who has autism and was non-verbal, told Insider.
“We don’t think twice about someone with an intellectual disability who might be under conservatorship because we think, ‘Oh, they can’t do it, they’re not famous, they don’t have an empire the way Britney Spears does.'”
Many young Americans live under conservatorships without decision-making powers
A conservatorship can be granted in situations where an individual is physically or mentally unable to manage their own assets, according to the Superior Court of California.
The terms of conservatorship, also known as guardianship, can vary from case to case depending on the person’s abilities. The Justice Department estimated that there are around 1.3 million active adult cases nationwide.
Disability rights activist Sara Luterman wrote in a recent article for The New Republic that, while there’s no concrete data on how many people live under conservatorships, there is “a ‘school-to-guardianship-pipeline,’ in which conservatorship over students with intellectual and developmental disabilities leaving school is treated as a matter of course.”
While conservatorship should be a last resort, Zoe Brennan-Krohn, an ACLU attorney focused on disability rights, told Luterman, “judges rarely ask” what other options have been exhausted.
Moss said supportive decision-making agreements offer more freedom and flexibility to the individual involved. Conservatorships, on the other hand, are more cumbersome to get out of.
“Even when we see Britney, who has been struggling to end a conservatorship for 13 years – just imagine how hard that must be for average disabled person who might also be marginalized by race or might not have access to attorneys,” Moss said.
Forced contraception is a rare measure, but it’s rooted in a history of eugenics
Conservatorships do not, by default, involve reproductive coercion, but it has come up in the past.
In 1985, the conservator parents of a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome wanted her to get a tubal ligation so she could not get pregnant. The California Supreme Court denied their request because it violated the woman’s rights.
However, Buck v. Bell – a 1927 Supreme Court court case that ruled it was constitutional to sterilize a “feeble-minded woman” because “three generations of imbeciles are enough” – is still on the books, Moss said.
“With disability, I think people are seen as not having autonomy or they don’t know better,” Moss said. “But like anyone else, we deserve bodily autonomy, to be able to make our own decisions, and to have access to education.”