It’s not just history — reproductive coercion by the government and criminal justice system is an ongoing reality.
CW: mentions of miscarriage, reproductive violence/coercion, and sexual violence/r*pe
By Kylie Cheung
In a world dominated by celebrity, few cultural moments can be more eye-opening to the oppressions of marginalized people than a horror story of someone with significant privilege experiencing those same oppressions. Last month, Britney Spears’ testimony on the trauma of her near-13-year-old, court-mandated conservatorship shocked much of the nation, except, of course, for those who have experienced much of what Spears described — or worse — firsthand. For people with disabilities and those who are denied bodily/reproductive autonomy, dignity and credibility by the US government and legal system, her words highlighted their everyday realities.
One particularly disturbing revelation from Spears’ testimony was her claim that her conservatorship has forced her to keep an IUD inserted against her will, denying Spears’ desire to have another child or marry her boyfriend. “This so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take [the IUD] out because they don’t want me to have . . . any more children,” Spears told the judge. The following week, a judge upheld her conservatorship.
The revelation is a reminder of the United States’ long history of reproductive coercion in the form of forced sterilizations, as demanded by the country’s white supremacist, ableist, classist vision of eugenics. And it’s not just history — reproductive coercion by the government and criminal justice system is an ongoing reality, and one of the many reasons reproductive justice, disability justice, and abolition are deeply intertwined.
Reproductive coercion can take many forms, whether it’s one of hundreds of recently passed state abortion restrictions, designed to force poor people of color to give birth against their will; or an abusive partner sabotaging their victim’s birth control; or a court system that denies your request to be freed from an abusive, coercive guardianship. Forced sterilizations have long been a prevalent method of choice by the US government, to control the reproduction of people with or perceived to have disabilities, like Spears.
Throughout the 20th century, an estimated 60,000 people in the US were sterilized without their consent, and nearly all victims were Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color; immigrants; the poor; and people with disabilities. All of this was carried out with state funding, and broad, nebulous definitions of disability with labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.”
It’s worth noting Spears’ conservatorship has never specified details of her mental condition, or whether she has one. Under Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision that permitted forced sterilizations, appraisal of someone’s mental abilities and worthiness of reproduction was determined by our white supremacist legal system. And unsurprisingly, this legal system often weaponized this discretion against people who couldn’t speak English, or lacked access to formal education, and were more likely to be from poor communities of color.
Contrary to limited public knowledge about Buck v. Bell, the ruling has yet to be fully reversed, and forced sterilizations carried out by the government have continued, largely through the apparatus of the US legal system. Between 1997 and 2010 alone, an estimated 1,400 women in California prisons, in which people of color are vastly overrepresented, faced unwanted sterilizations. According to the doctor who performed these sterilizations, this was for cost-saving reasons, deeply implicating capitalism, classism and racism as the roots of America’s enduring, eugenicist agenda. In 2017, a Tennessee judge pressured incarcerated people to undergo sterilizations for shortened sentences, and just last year, a whistleblower exposed an ICE facility for carrying out thousands of forced sterilizations on migrant women.
Another driving force in persistent, state-sanctioned forced sterilizations are racist, ableist ideals about “good” parenthood and family structures, all while the US denies poor communities of color the resources to thrive, and instead over-invests in prisons and police forces that tear families of color apart. To that end, another prevalent form of reproductive coercion exists in the policing and criminalization of pregnancy outcomes. In Wisconsin and other states, as an extension of the racist War on Drugs that hyper-policed Black pregnant folks, any pregnant person even suspected of substance use can face criminalization, rather than mental health treatment and compassion.
In an alarmingly ironic twist, the feticide laws in most states that were created with the intent to protect pregnant people from domestic violence are now being used to criminalize and jail people who miscarry, self-manage their abortions, or engage in other behaviors that might “harm” their fetus. In 2019, a Black woman named Marshae Jones was jailed for losing her pregnancy after being shot in the stomach. In 2015, Purvi Patel, an Asian-American woman, was sent to prison for contradictory charges of feticide and child abuse, for allegedly using medication abortion. Before her, Amber Abreu, a Latinx teenager, was jailed, also for using abortion medication and “procuring a miscarriage.” Almost every state requires some form of surveillance and reporting of abortion care to the state government. These are the natural, chilling results of a criminal legal system and government that confer personhood upon fetuses, while dehumanizing pregnant people along lines of race, class and ability.
Reproductive coercion by the state is also a survivor justice issue. In many states, laws that ban or restrict abortion often allow exceptions only for those who are impregnated by rape. But to access this exception, they must somehow prove they were raped to medical professionals or law enforcement, despite the reality that police officers have long harmed and retraumatized victims, and are often abusers, themselves. Their negligence and apathy has led to more than 100,000 rape kits being hoarded and backlogged in police departments across the country. Victims’ credibility is particularly shaped and assigned by ableism — people with disabilities are more likely to face sexual abuse, but also less likely to receive help and support.
In tandem with facing prevalent sexual abuse, people with disabilities are also uniquely desexualized and infantilized, often being denied even basic sexual health education or reproductive health care. For example, people with disabilities and people of color are more likely to rely on Medicaid for health care, but laws like the Hyde Amendment prohibit coverage and funding of abortion care. And despite the plucky, widely used term “marriage equality” to refer to same-sex marriage, people with disabilities have long pointed out how many laws strip them of health care and other resources requisite to their survival when they get married, rendering them fully dependent on partners and family, who may be abusive.
As the realities of legal, state-sanctioned systems of abuse of people with disabilities, people of color, and people with low incomes are increasingly laid bare, the US government can no longer hide behind frameworks and revisionist histories that portray eugenics as a relic of the past. Neoliberal reproductive rights activism for middle-class white women’s right to abortion, but not the resources and freedoms to safely parent, nor liberation from prisons and immigrant detainment centers, won’t solve these crises. We need abolition and reproductive justice — the ability of all people to parent, not parent, and raise families in healthy, safe communities.
Amid fervent backlash to Spears’ conservatorship, the government has responded by not just upholding it, but denying public access to future trials. All that’s changing in her case is its visibility — much like with American forced sterilization efforts.
Kylie Cheung is an author and writer on reproductive justice, survivor justice, and health care disparities in communities of color. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung and kyliecheung.journoportfolio.com.
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