Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
For 13 years, people other than Britney Spears have been running her life.
Locked in a conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie Spears, since 2008, the 39-year-old pop singer lost nearly all of her personal autonomy. She did not control her movement from place to place, her performance schedule, her $60 million fortune or her health care decisions. And, in one of the most harrowing details of the conservatorship, she lost control over her body and her ability to have children.
When Spears appeared in court in June, she told the judge that she had pleaded with the people who controlled her conservatorship to allow her to remove an IUD so she could have a third child. In emotional testimony, she said they denied her request: “This so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children, any more children.”
On Wednesday, a judge agreed to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship, bringing Spears a step closer to regaining her freedom. But this isn’t the end of the conservatorship – and even ending the conservatorship will not make Britney Spears whole. For more than a decade, she has been denied the most personal of all freedoms: the freedom to choose to have children.
And she is not alone. The stark reality is that women in the United States do not have, and have never had, full reproductive autonomy. In addition to shedding light on the realities of conservatorship for a host of those who do not share her fame, Spears’s struggle helps highlight the moral catastrophe of those limitations, especially at a moment when women’s reproductive rights are under renewed attack.
Contemporary discussions of reproductive rights usually center on the decision to end a pregnancy, not start one. That’s perhaps one reason why Spears’s pleas have gained so much attention: she is arguing for the right to have a child. But for opponents of women’s reproductive autonomy, abortion, birth control and sexual freedom have long been connected – if a woman can control her ability to get and remain pregnant, then she has far more control over how often, and with whom, she has sex.
That dangerous specter of a sexually liberated woman has produced centuries of dystopian regulations: bans not only on contraceptive aids but contraceptive knowledge; periods of life in which a woman’s ability to consent to sex was stripped away; and the erasure of women’s independent identities in the eyes of the law. And especially now, as so many Americans fear the Supreme Court is preparing to strip women of their right to abortion, the Spears case looms especially large: she embodies all those tenuous freedoms women in the US have fought so hard to obtain.
Women’s lack of autonomy in the 18th and 19th centuries likely comes as no surprise. Enslaved women, because of their status as property, lacked legal control over their bodies, including their ability to have children (and their ability to remain with their children after birth). By the 1870s, the Comstock laws, a set of federal obscenity laws that targeted sexual pleasure and reproduction, outlawed not only birth control but also any information about birth control, leaving women to seek black-market solutions when they wished to limit the number of children they bore.
In the early 20th century, the US made significant advances in scientific knowledge and methodologies, especially as doctors began to develop new professional standards. It was also an era in which Americans embraced progressive politics that elevated experts and sought expanded rights for White women, particularly the right to vote. But the innovations of the early 20th century did not improve matters for most women. Birth control remained outlawed and abortion inaccessible. Yet while autonomous control over reproduction remained out of reach for most women, new laws and court rulings imbued doctors and the state with powerful new tools to intercede in women’s reproductive lives, thanks in large part to the rise of eugenics.
Eugenics, the study and application of research into “good genes,” not only gripped the scientific community in the United States by the legal community as well. Eugenics-mania swept across the country: state fairs hosted “better baby” contests to celebrate ideal genetic stock. Some of the most influential Americans, including President Theodore Roosevelt, embraced the new science, seeing it as both a natural extension of animal husbandry and a revolutionary step forward for breeding better humans.
That had profound implications for women’s reproductive rights, as eugenics became a justification for the state to use forced sterilization to control who could have children. Though men have greater and easier reproductive capacity than women, women quickly became the primary targets of these draconian measures, the first of which was instituted in Indiana in 1907, with at least 30 other states adopting such laws in the decades that followed. Black women, in particular, were targeted among the tens of thousands of Americans forcibly sterilized under these laws, which were sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 1927.
Things began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban contraception, recognizing a fundamental right to privacy. Coming just a few years after the contraceptive pill had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, this ruling opened up a new era of reproductive control to women. And of course, eight years later the Court sanctioned an expansive new schema for abortion access in Roe v. Wade.
And yet none of those changes ushered in an age of full autonomy after Roe. Marital rape would not be outlawed in all 50 states until the 1990s, leaving women with less than complete control over sex (you could add to that the confusion around date rape and the vanishingly low prosecution rates for rape, all adding to the failure of the state to protect women’s bodily autonomy).
Even Roe did not recognize full autonomy. Its three-part structure, allowing increasing levels of state restrictions in the second and third trimester, meant government could still actively intervene in women’s pregnancies. New laws and court rulings in the 1980s and 1990s quickly whittled away at Roe, allowing more and more restrictions.
There were also other encroachments on women’s reproductive autonomy. In the 1980s, companies could require women who worked for them be sterilized as a condition of employment. As a circuit judge, Robert Bork ruled that such requirements were constitutional (the Supreme Court later disagreed). And the forced sterilization of Latina and Indigenous women continued into the late 20th century.
For some, the 20th century might seem like a progress story: the gradual growth of women’s bodily autonomy. But that autonomy has hit a hard wall in the 21st century, as abortion rights have been rolled back, as the right has wrongly attacked IUDs as abortifacients that terminate pregnancies rather than birth control that prevents them, as the Supreme Court has ruled that companies do not have to cover women’s full reproductive services as part of basic health care.
That wall has never been more visible than it is now, as the Supreme Court has allowed a Texas ban on abortion as early as six weeks to remain in effect and is set in December to hear argument over a highly restrictive measure in Mississippi. Many see in 2021 a replay of 1992, when advocates were convinced the fate of abortion rights was sealed. But this time, the situation looks even bleaker for women seeking reproductive autonomy and all the rights and freedoms that are connected to it.
The tenuous state of women’s bodily autonomy has spurred unusual and emotional statements from a number of prominent political figures. Rep. Cori Bush took to the House floor this week to share her painful story of seeking an abortion after she was raped as a 17-year-old girl. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee shared their abortion stories as well, lobbying to protect the procedure that they had each needed. And Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has become the liberal conscience of the increasingly right-wing Court, has spoken out as well, recognizing that many women will be sorely disappointed with the Court in the years to come.
This is why the attention being paid to the Spears case is happening at a crucial moment: seeing a woman being freed from the control of her father, and slowly regaining full autonomy over her own life and body, is a reminder of why all women deserve the right to control their lives as well.