In Brazil, There’s a Legal Term for What Britney Spears Says Is Happening: Sexual Violence

In Brazilian and international law, the rights of disabled people over their reproductive systems are clear.

US singer Britney Spears arrives for the premiere of Sony Pictures' "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California on July 22, 2019. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Britney Spears arrives for a movie premiere in Hollywood, Calif., on July 22, 2019.

Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a plastic device in the uterus of pop star Britney Spears. She does not want it there.

The point of the intrauterine device, or IUD, is to prevent Spears from having children. In court, she said she’s wanted the device out for some time — to be able to become pregnant. The guardians in her conservatorship have, according to her court testimony, prevented her from seeing a doctor to perform the extraction.

“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,” Spears said in the June 23 court hearing about her conservatorship. “They don’t want me to have children — any more children.”

In Brazil, we have a legal term to describe what Spears testified is happening to her and her uterus: sexual violence. According to Brazil’s domestic violence law, any effort “that denies or limits” the “sexual and reproductive rights” of women is a form of sexual violence.

There is no indication that, under U.S. law, Spears’s conservatorship sexually abused her, but there are lessons to be learned from looking at her plight through international eyes. Spears was placed under the conservatorship 13 years ago because a court essentially deemed her to be disabled. Looking at her case through the lens of the rights she would have in Brazil can shed light on the shortcomings of U.S. laws that leave disabled women without protections.

“If it’s happening to Britney Spears, who’s very privileged, white, has lots of money, what’s happening to the average disabled woman?”

“I think that what’s happening to Britney Spears is tragic. I also think it didn’t surprise people with disabilities at all. We all know that this is happening,” said Dr. Robyn Powell, a law professor at Stetson University, in Florida, who has a disability herself. “If it’s happening to Britney Spears, who’s very privileged, white, has lots of money,” said Powell, “what’s happening to the average disabled woman?”

Conservatorships are established to give decision-making power over a disabled person’s lives to others. Spears’s conservatorship, overseen by her father, Jamie Spears, and others, is legally responsible for managing her fortune, her relationships, her work schedule, and more.

Some of the details are murky. Jamie Spears denied in a court filing that he has had any involvement in his daughter’s “personal affairs” since Jodi Montgomery, a professional fiduciary, joined the conservatorship in 2019. Montgomery’s representatives told news media, “Britney’s choice to marry and to start a family have never been impacted by the conservatorship” since Montgomery joined the team. (Other conservators, like a private trust that signed on to manage finances, Spears’s lawyer, and her manager, have all recently asked to resign from the conservatorship.)

In California, conservatorships are not granted control over medical decisions unless a courts specifically orders it. In her court testimony, though, Spears said the “team” was in fact exerting control over such decisions in her life — including over her uterus.

Although IUDs make for excellent contraceptives, they are not without collateral side effects, as with any other form of birth control. They can cause increased menstrual flow, greater intensity and frequency of cramps, back pain, and nausea. Even if free of symptoms, the body is profoundly affected by the device’s presence. One version works with a copper coating that inflames the uterus to make it inhospitable for egg implantation and another works by releasing a localized dose of traditional hormonal contraceptive.

Submitting a woman to these processes against her will is a grave violation of her right to bodily autonomy, according to the United Nations, beyond threatening her basic sexual and reproductive rights.

There are many costs. An American whose right to motherhood is denied would undergo the same psychological suffering as that of a Brazilian woman. The personal consequences of sexual violence aren’t bound by nationality or the existence of laws that do or do not punish such conduct.

American law has not caught up to this kind of violence and made it illegal, as Brazilian law has. This means countless women are in the process of having their rights violated and have no official recourse.

Powell said there is “nothing specific to forced contraception” in U.S. law. “I absolutely think this is sexual assault,” said Powell, who believes forced contraception is the same as forced sterilization, which has come under increased scrutiny in the U.S. and has been legally barred in some states. “You still can’t have a child, whether you’re taking forced contraception or forcibly sterilizing someone,” she said. “It’s sterilization without the surgery.”

Unlike the U.S., Brazil offers specific legal avenues for women to pursue.

If Spears were a Brazilian citizen, being restricted from taking out an IUD would, according to the domestic violence law, make her a victim of sexual violence.

If Spears were a Brazilian citizen, being restricted from taking out an IUD would, according to the domestic violence law, make her a victim of sexual violence.

She would also enjoy protection under Brazil’s Statute for Disabled Persons, which would regulate Spears’s case. The law guarantees that people deemed to be disabled can exercise the same sexual and reproductive rights as everyone else. Article 6 of the law says that “disability does not affect a person’s civil capacity” to “exercise the right to decide the number of children and have adequate access to information on reproduction and family planning.”

Brazil’s laws are in line with international norms. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a document adopted by the U.S. and 188 other countries in 1995, says that “forced sterilization and forced abortion, coercive/forced use of contraceptives” are “acts of violence against women.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that all adult men and women have the right to build a family. The international Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities says, “Persons with disabilities must not be denied the opportunity to experience their sexuality, have sexual relationships and experience parenthood.” The U.S. has not ratified the treaty.

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act affirms that individuals cannot be discriminated against because of a disability. “In theory,” said Powell, “that should prevent women with disabilities from having their reproductive rights completely disregarded, but that’s not happening, obviously, as Britney Spears’s recent revelations show.”

The American disability law makes no mention of questions of sexual and reproductive health. Nor do other laws relating to persons with disabilities, which focus on issues of labor, voting, education, and other areas.

Laura Mauldin, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut focused on disability, gender, and family, explained that, among advocates for the disabled, there is a concept called supported decision making: “The idea is to trust disabled people in making their own decisions, including reproductive decisions, and developing a team of people that the disabled person trusts, then talking through and developing the decisions.”

Spears has finally told the world about her situation after years of silence, fearing that no one would believe her. This week, Spears’s mother, Lynne, asked the court to allow the singer to hire her own lawyer so that she could, among other things, take control over her reproductive rights. It is now up to Judge Brenda Penny to decide whether to trust Spears with her own liberty and give her the chance to regain control over her life — and her uterus.

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