Is the Forced Contraception Alleged by Britney Spears Legal?

Among the stunning assertions that the pop star Britney Spears made to a Los Angeles probate judge this week, as she sought to end her protracted conservatorship, was one that shook experts in guardianship law and reproductive rights deeply. She said a team led by her father, who is her conservator, prevented her from having her IUD removed because the team did not want her to have more children.

“Forcing someone to be on birth control against their will is a violation of basic human rights and bodily autonomy, just as forcing someone to become or stay pregnant against their will would be,” said Ruth Dawson, a principal policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports reproductive rights.

Court-condoned compelled contraception is rare in conservatorship. But the specter it raises — forced sterilization — does have a grim, extensive history in the United States, especially against poor women, women of color and inmates. In the early 20th century, the state-sanctioned practice was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

Although the court moved away from that position in the 1940s, and consensus arose through the growing canon on informed consent that forced sterilization was inhumane, the practice continued to be quietly tolerated.

“Such a child would lack the capacity to understand that a penis and vagina could make a baby,” said Bridget J. Crawford, an expert on guardianship law at Pace University law school. “And that certainly is not the Britney Spears case.”

Eugenics was a leading rationale for female sterilization. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the right to sterilize a “feeble-minded” woman who had been committed to a state mental institution, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously writing, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Although the opinion was never formally overturned, in a 1942 case, Skinner v. Oklahoma, which challenged forced sterilization of certain convicted criminals, Justice William O. Douglas, writing for a unanimous court, said that the right to procreate was fundamental. “Any experiment the state conducts is to his irreparable injury,” he wrote. “He is forever deprived of a basic liberty.”

While Ms. Spears has not been sterilized, Ms. Crawford said, if she is being prevented from getting her IUD removed, that would be a proxy for sterilization, in particular because she testified that she wanted to bear more children.

Melissa Murray, who teaches reproductive rights and constitutional law at N.Y.U. law school, pointed to another unnerving element in the allegation by Ms. Spears, who, at 39, has been under her father’s guardianship for 13 years. Ms. Murray said that Ms. Spears, an adult, appeared to be living a legally constructed childhood.

“It’s unusual that her father is making the kinds of decisions we’d expect a parent to make for a teenager,” she added.

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