Britney Spears’s Case Exposed a Systemic History of Reproductive Control

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A ‘Free Britney’ rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. on July 14, 2021. A cardboard Britney is in the foreground. (Mike Maguire / Flickr

Two months after Britney Spears first revealed that she wanted to end the conservatorship that gave third parties control over her life and finances, her father, Jamie Spears, has filed to end her 13-year-long conservatorship. Being forced to get and keep IUD are among the allegations that Spears made against her team in a statement to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on June 23.

Men have an extensive history of inappropriate involvement in birthing people’s reproduction—making Britney Spears’s father only the latest person at the center of allegations involving reproductive control.

As a sociologist who studies fertility, I’ve found myself regularly running through the list of egregious ways that men have been involved in violating the reproductive rights of cis women and trans men. Whether it’s contraceptive sterilization or abortion, cis men have behaved badly when adjudicating birth control both historically and contemporarily.

In the 1950s, hospitals in the United States were in the throes of establishing committees to curb and control abortion. Only 6 percent of doctors were female at the time. Yet, as part of the process of obtaining an abortion, women might see multiple doctors and face both intrusive questions and physical exams before they could receive an abortion.

While much has changed since facing hospital abortion committees was the only way to obtain an abortion, the centrality of men’s decision-making over women’s bodies hasn’t. In the nearly 50 years since an all-male Supreme Court decided that women did indeed have a constitutionally-protected right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, a majority-male court is set to reconsider the issue


In the nearly 50 years since an all-male Supreme Court decided that women did indeed have a constitutionally-protected right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, a majority-male court is set to reconsider the issue. 


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A January 2020 abortion rally in D.C. (Hillel Steinberg / Flickr)

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed the Gestational Age Act into law in 2018, which bans abortions after 15 weeks. Soon, the court will consider the question as to whether all previability prohibitions on abortion are unconstitutional. In July, Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to leverage the law to overturn Roe v. Wade. Without Roe, states would be left to decide on abortion—states still primarily composed of male lawmakers. One analysis found that as many as 22 states could prohibit abortion in a post-Roe world.  

As if external threats to their reproductive autonomy were not enough, people also face more personal threats to their reproductive freedom. My research shows women undergo battles for autonomy with their partners and families too. Whether it’s people pressuring them to stay on birth control (as Britney Spears recounts), or boyfriends convincing them to “just get on the pill” to avoid using condoms, my book shows that women also face gendered birth control threats outside the public eye.


Whether it’s people pressuring them to stay on birth control (as Britney Spears recounts), or boyfriends convincing them to “just get on the pill” to avoid using condoms, women face gendered birth control threats outside the public eye.


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Scenes at the Supreme Court right after the announcement of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Of course, men aren’t the only ones with the power to interfere with people’s reproductive freedom. Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court spurred fears of turmoil for abortion rights precisely because a judge with unfavorable abortion attitudes could do considerable damage on a conservative court regardless of their gender. That cis women can (and do) harm other women, however, is no excuse for ignoring the inappropriate ways that men regulate women’s reproduction.

Spears’s very public battle with her father is just the latest reminder that birthing people’s voices are the only ones that we should listen to in the gendered battle for reproductive control over their bodies. To do otherwise is not just misguided. It’s toxic.

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About

Krystale E. Littlejohn is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and author of Just Get On the Pill: The Uneven Burden of Reproductive Politics, forthcoming at University of California Press. She studies inequality and the social politics of reproduction.