Reproductive Oppression Is an American Legacy

Photo: Getty Images / Valerie Macon / Rich Fury / W+G Creative
Among the damning allegations regarding a 13-year conservatorship that controls her life and her money, Britney Spears said Wednesday that she is required to wear a contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) and forced to work against her will.

"I want to be able to get married and have a baby," said the 39-year-old pop star and mother of two in a statement delivered remotely to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. "I wanted to take the [IUD] out, so I could start trying to have another baby, but this so-called team won't let me go to the doctor to take it out because they, they don't want me to have any more children."

Spears' conservators control everything from her health-care decisions to when she can leave the house, restricting fundamental decisions about her own body, explains the New York Times.

“What is happening to Britney Spears is unacceptable and highlights the critical issue of reproductive coercion. Unfortunately, it is all too common for people to experience relationships where someone abuses their power and exerts control over another person’s reproductive decisions," said Krishna Upadhya, MD, MPH, vice president of quality care and health equity at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement to Well+Good. "No one should be pressured into a decision around whether or not they should use birth control, or which method to use and when. True bodily autonomy is the ability to make your own sexual and reproductive health decisions and access the care you need, when you need it—free from interference from others."

Reproductive coercion, also referred to as reproductive oppression, is "the regulation and exploitation of individuals’ bodies, sexuality, labor, and procreative capacities as a strategy to control individuals and entire communities," according to the Women's Leadership and Resource Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, people with disabilities and women of color have experienced reproductive oppression through forced sterilization based on the discredited and unscientific "study" of eugenics, which aims to increase the occurrence of "desirable" genetic characteristics. Forced sterilization policies in the United States target minorities and those with disabilities, writes Alexandra Stern, PhD, professor of American culture, history, and women's studies at the University of Michigan.

"At first, sterilization programs targeted white men, expanding by the 1920s to affect the same number of women as men," writes Dr. Stern. "The laws used broad and ever-changing disability labels like 'feeblemindedness' and 'mental defective.' Over time, though, women and people of color increasingly became the target, as eugenics amplified sexism and racism."

Since 2018, at least 57 migrant women in a Georgia ICE detention center say they were forced or pressured into having gynecological procedures, including unnecessary hysterectomies, reports The Intercept. Most of these women were Black or Latinx. And between 1997 and 2014, more than 1,000 women—predominantly Black women—were forcibly sterilized in California prisons.

Conversely, though abortion remains legal in all 50 states, legislation that limits access to abortion (and contraceptives) means thousands of women across the country are forced to give birth to children that they would rather not have. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, in 2014, three-fourths of abortion patients were low income with nearly 50 percent living at or below the federal poverty level. When these women are unable to access abortion care, they are unwillingly bringing children into the only developed country that does not mandate paid parental leave and where there is no universal daycare nor universal pre-K.

Although Spears' story is extraordinary, it is far from an isolated. People with uteruses in the U.S. are constantly stripped of reproductive autonomy. And with a never-ending wave of legislation that reinforces reproductive oppression making its rounds, it no signs of stopping.

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