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Sensemaker audio

Britney’s back

Britney’s back

Britney Spears’s speech to a court about the conservatorship that runs her life has made headlines. But it’s also raised an important question: who gets to decide if you can have a child?

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, how Britney Spears’ revelations in the courtroom raised the serious question: how many  women might be being denied the right to have a baby? 


“The pop star Britney Spears has asked a court in Los Angeles to end a guardianship that she says has led to her having no control of her life and finances for 13 years…”

BBC News

You probably heard about Britney Spears launching a 24 minute attack in court this week on the conservatorship that controls her life.

And one thing that she said really stuck out.

“I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things.”

Britney Spears speaking at court hearing

Britney Spears told the judge that she wasn’t allowed a doctor’s appointment to have a contraceptive device removed because her father, and the people who control her affairs, didn’t want her to have any more children. 

And they get to make that choice because the conservatorship means she is legally considered unable to make her own decisions – because of concerns regarding her mental health. 

Now it might sound pretty shocking but Britney Spears’ case isn’t an anomaly. And the pop star’s fans quickly reacted to the news. They stood in solidarity with her and called it a disability rights issue. 

Because just like Britney Spears, people with disabilities are regularly stripped of “legal personhood” through conservatorships or guardianships.  

“Guardianship is a massive intrusion into a person’s life. They lose a lot of rights? In fact they lose more rights than someone who goes to prison.”

Judge Steve King, Tarrant County, Texas

So the question is: how many other women are experiencing this too?  


“Women  with disabilities report being underserved and overlooked in reproductive health care settings.”

Hilary Brown, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

That was Hilary Brown, an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto who says one in ten women have a disability. Yet research into the reproductive healthcare received by women with learning and physical disabilities in the UK is limited.

The most recent study was in 1997, that’s nearly 25 years ago. 

But from the little research that does exist, it’s often assumed women with disabilities aren’t sexually active… that they don’t need contraception or even want to have children. 

“Women with major mobility problems compared to other women in reproductive age are 70% less likely to be asked by their doctors about contraception.”

Lisa Iezzoni, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

And this oversight is a problem that starts from childhood.

“Starting right with childhood experiences children with disabilities are less likely than their peers without disabilities to receive sexual health education in schools.”

Hilary Brown, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

That’s because the risks to women with disabilities are often prioritised over their rights when it comes to reproductive health. 

Women who are less mobile or use wheelchairs are more likely to have side effects from contraceptives like blood clots, while other women have difficulties remembering to take pills or swallowing them. But the alternatives that do exist often aren’t offered. 

But there’s an even darker side to this too…


“The United Nations is looking to Australia’s forced sterilisation of women with disabilities stating that it’s a breach of human rights.”


In parts of the world, it’s still legal to remove a person’s capacity to reproduce through forced sterilisation. 

“Australia allows parents of disabled women to sterilise their daughters as well as accept court issued sterilisation orders.”


And women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to this. Through the excuse of “legitimate” medical care, some are forced into sterilisation.

In some cases they have no idea what’s happening to them because the “consent” was given by their guardian, supposedly in their “best interests”. But it’s a huge breach of human rights and it often leaves women open to abuse.

“Women with disabilities are also more likely to experience abusive relationships and live in isolation.”

Hilary Brown, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

So although Britney Spears’ is an international pop star with huge public interest, her case isn’t unique.

She’s been left out of the conversation on her reproductive rights, just like many women with disabilities are. 

Britney Spears has had her life controlled for 13 years. If this has been happening to her in secret for all that time, there could be thousands of other women whose rights are being compromised in this way. It’s a problem that’s hard to measure – but one Britney Spears has catapulted into the spotlight. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.