Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Is a Disability Rights Issue

“I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive.”
June 24, 2021, 4:09pm
Britney Spears attends the 4th Hollywood Beauty Awards at Avalon Hollywood on February 25, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Britney Spears attends the 4th Hollywood Beauty Awards at Avalon Hollywood on February 25, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) 

Britney Spears has been living under a conservatorship that has robbed her of her happiness, her freedom to have another child, and her ability to live a full life, the pop star said during a court hearing Wednesday. 

The arrangement, in place ever since Spears experienced a very public mental health crisis more than a decade ago, has given her father, James Spears, and others control over the 39-year-old’s money and day-to-day existence—reportedly including disputes over whether she can restain her kitchen cabinets or remove an IUD. And she wants it to end. Now. 

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“I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive,” Spears said in her remarks, the first time she’s spoken publicly about the situation.

She’s not the only one who feels this way.

Spears’ comments Wednesday triggered a deluge of support from disability rights advocates and attorneys who noted that the legal process in which it’s determined that a person can’t make decisions for themselves, requiring an assigned “conservator” or legal guardian, is often imposed on disabled people, depriving them of their civil rights. 

While conservatorship is supposed to be used as a last-ditch solution for a person who is truly incapable of making their own choices, that’s not always the case, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In an ACLU Q&A with a staff attorney about the issue, the organization noted that while it’s unclear whether Spears identifies as a person with disabilities, in the eyes of the court, she’s disabled. 

Sometimes people lose their rights when other alternatives are available, like “supported decision making,” or arrangements that give disabled people greater autonomy in their choices while receiving help from people they trust. Depriving people of those more-nuanced options can be hugely detrimental; once a conservatorship or guardianship agreement is in place, it’s very hard to lift. 

“I have PERSONALLY seen people stripped of all their rights for the following reasons: hoarding, being a wheelchair user, needing a speech device, hearing voices, being in a psychiatric hospital, old age,” a Detroit-based legal aid attorney with the username @nomoreevictions said on Twitter. “These are people capable of handling their own affairs with assistance.” 

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It’s unclear just how many people like Spears are currently vying to get out of these arrangements in the U.S. There are around 1.3 million active adult guardianship or conservatorship cases nationwide, with at least $50 billion in assets involved, according to the Justice Department.

There’s also a long-standing history of paternalistic, abusive attitudes toward disabled people in the U.S. that, much like Spears’ current situation, intersect with reproductive rights and the courts.

In Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision, the court upheld a state-mandated sterilization program for “mentally deficient” individuals and others—a ruling that, to this day, has not been overturned. Some Twitter users were quick to draw parallels between that case and what Spears is experiencing, since she said Wednesday that “I have an IUD in my body right now that won’t let me have a baby and my conservators won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out.”

“The idea that an adult woman has had an IUD forced upon her and the law will permit third-parties from allowing her to have a child against her will is anathema to basic principles of bodily autonomy and the right to self-determination,” Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, said on Twitter. “It smacks of Buck v. Bell. #FreeBritney.”

And that’s not even the full extent of the control others have over Spears’ life. According to her comments Wednesday, Spears has been forced to perform while ill and take lithium. She’s been monitored extensively by nurses and security staff. 

“I’m tired of feeling alone,” she said. “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so.”