Echoes of Eugenics Are Still With Us
Evolution’s legacy lives on… and on… and on:
The case of eugenics and Britney Spears
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
Long after the problems of eugenics have been well documented and become widely known, remnants of this idea have still infected our society. Although many examples exist, one case that has received a great deal of recent attention involves Britney Spears. Spears is one of the most successful female entertainers of our generation. Her plight has reminded some of the many abuses of eugenics.
Britney Spears: Background
Britney Spears is a 39-year-old songwriter, singer, and dancer credited with influencing the revival of popular music during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her professional career began at age eight with acting parts, including the lead role of Tina Denmark in the off-Broadway musical Ruthless. Her first record contract was signed only a few years later. Now she is one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Her sales are over 100 million records worldwide, and over 70 million in the United States. Britney was the executive producer of her fifth studio album titled Blackout.
She is hardly a person that one would label inferior to the degree that she must be prevented from having more children, but it appears she has somehow been forced into that category. She is now engaged to be married to Sam Asghari, 27, a personal trainer, model, and actor born in Tehran, Iran, and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 12. He and Britney have been a couple since 2016. Judging by their career success, they both appear to be above-average in intelligence, a major consideration in past eugenic sterilization concerns. Yet she has had an IUD (intrauterine device) in place to prevent here from getting pregnant, an issue now considering her age. She is near the age when childbearing is a concern for both her and her future children. Her first marriage, which ended in July 2007, was with dancer Kevin Federline, with whom she had two children. As we will document, she has followed the path of entertainers who became enormously successful as children.
One example of behavior which got her in trouble occurred in February 2006 when Spears was driving with her son, Sean, on her lap instead of in a car seat. Child advocates were horrified by her holding the wheel with one hand and her son with the other. Six months later Spears posed nude for the August 2006 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, also not unusual for famous female movie stars. She also spent time in drug rehabilitation facilities, another trait of famous performers. She once shaved her head with electric clippers at a hair salon, irrational behavior also not unknown among performers.
In October 2007, Spears lost physical custody of her sons to Federline for reasons not revealed to the public. This devastating blow caused her more problems including refusing to relinquish custody of her sons to Federline. Once when police had arrived at her house, she appeared to be under the influence of some unidentified substance and was hospitalized. No long-term hard-drug use was ever documented. The next day, Spears’ visitation rights were suspended at an emergency court hearing, and her ex-husband was given sole physical and legal custody of their sons. Such custody contests are not rare among the rich and famous. She was committed to the psychiatric ward of UCLA Medical Center and put on a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold (i.e., confinement up to 72 hours) under California state law, and released five days later.
Some 13 years ago, the Court then placed her under a conservatorship under her father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet, giving them complete control of her assets. She, nonetheless, continued winning accolades with her music. The publicity about her struggle to be released from the conservatorship resulted in widespread media coverage. Her conservatorship issue generated over 1 million shares on Twitter, over 500,000 messages using the tag #FreeBritney, and over 150,000 messages with a new hashtag referencing the court appearance, #BritneySpeaks.
Her comparatively minor problems were brought on as a result of the pressures of her career. The major issues appear to have resulted from her divorce and child custody issues. These conflicts do not appear any different than those of millions of Americans, and hardly merit control over her reproductive life or the fortune she has earned in her career. What is very rare is the conservatorship. The conservatorship has caused some to compare her experience to the events surrounding the eugenic treatment of women.
On September 7, 2021, a petition to end the conservatorship was filed. On September 12, Spears announced her engagement to her longtime boyfriend, Sam Asghari. On September 29, Judge Penny suspended her father Jamie as conservator of Spears’ estate, with accountant John Zabel replacing him on a temporary basis until November 12. On this date a hearing will be held whether to totally terminate the conservatorship. She does have a lot of problems, not unlike many extremely famous female singers, but unlike them she ended up being forced into a conservatorship.
A Legacy of Eugenics?
Britney Spears has been locked in court battles for 13 years and her conservatorship will not be terminated until the next hearing on Nov. 12, 2021. During her 13-year-long conservatorship, she was limited in her ability to make the normal life choices that most people take for granted. One issue is that she was not allowed to go off birth control. “[T]his so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take [my contraceptive IUD] out because they don’t want me to have … any more children,” Michaela Curran, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Health affiliated with the Center for Disabilities and Development at the University of Iowa, writes in her piece “Britney’s conservatorship is one example of how the legacy of eugenics in the US continues to affect the lives of disabled women” in The Conversation:
Spears’ anguish over the loss of her reproductive agency was palpable. And her story is one shared by disabled women across the country who are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Ensuring the reproductive rights of disabled women is a professional and personal issue for me. I am a public health researcher at the University of Iowa studying the social factors that influence accessibility for disabled people. I am also a disabled woman who has faced tough decisions about my own sexual and reproductive health.
Curran continues, explaining in more detail her eugenic concern by noting that
Disabled women, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, are often trapped by paternalistic decision-making. Courts and caregivers make choices about their lives with little input from the women themselves. Society views this approach as benevolent because women with physical and mental disabilities are often seen as sexually vulnerable and in need of protection for their own good. But these beliefs come from the long shadow of eugenics and the stigma and stereotypes that continue to dominate conversations around disability and reproduction.
The long shadow of eugenics
The United States has a long history of forced sterilization targeting disabled people, usually women, especially those who are poorly educated, living in poverty, or both. Spears is not disabled, not a woman of color, nor living in poverty. The American eugenics movement
arose from the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which permitted the sterilization of Carrie Bell, a young woman deemed “feebleminded” by her adoptive family and, eventually, the Supreme Court. Buck v. Bell became a bellwether of the eugenics movement, which sought to eliminate “negative traits” through selective breeding. The ruling opened the door for an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 forced sterilizations in the U.S. in the 20th century.
The Buck v. Bell ruling legalized forced sterilization of people deemed ‘unfit’ to succeed in American society, a rather vague term which would not by any rational personal apply to one of the most successful women in America. This is true even though she is rather eccentric, as are many of her successful entertainment peers.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes that disability alone is often not a valid reason for sterilization. The policy is as follows:
Sterilization is the most common method of contraception among married couples, with nearly twice as many couples choosing female partner sterilization over male sterilization. Although sterilization is among the most straightforward surgical procedures an obstetrician–gynecologist performs, it is enormously complex when considered from a historical, sociological, or ethical perspective. Sterilization practices have embodied a problematic tension, in which some women who desired fertility were sterilized without their knowledge or consent, and other women who wanted sterilization to limit their family size lacked access to it. An ethical approach to the provision of sterilization must, therefore, promote access for women who wish to use sterilization as a method of contraception, but at the same time safeguard against coercive or otherwise unjust uses.
This ethics guideline was designed for medical professionals, and is not enforced by law or even public policy. In the case of Spears, Curran concluded that her
conservatorship centered around the stereotype that disabled people are unable to manage their own lives. However, she had produced four albums and gone on several world tours in this 13-year period. That she was still not allowed to act on her desire to have children is a testament to the enduring stigma around disability and especially mental illness.
I would go further. Spears does not appear to be disabled in any way. Her problem is not uncommon among child stars who go on to become adult entertainers. Nonetheless, the rest of the concern Curran documented does apply to Spears:
Recognizing the reproductive rights of disabled women is about promoting reproductive justice for all women. This includes ending what one research subject called the “roaring silence” around sterilization, supporting evidence-based sex education, and fighting disability health stereotypes.
Update 10/18/2021: An article by Dennis Thompson posted on HealthDay today describes the widespread problem of conservator laws and practices. In “How 1.3 Million Americans Became Controlled by Conservatorships,” he explains that the California state paperwork listed “dementia” as the cause for Spears’ conservatorship, but one opinion was it was actually “her making what was deemed inappropriate choices in terms of how she was spending her money, who she was spending her time with.”
1.3 million conservatorships are active at any given time, controlling other people’s lives. Most Americans in guardianships allegedly are suffering from medical or psychological problems that could impair their decision-making ability, Thompson explains. Examples include young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, seniors afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. However, abuse potential is built into these arrangements: “guardianships are designed to last a lifetime, and they almost always do…. Getting out of them is nearly impossible.” Furthermore, “almost anyone can become a guardian, and the system of monitoring and supervision of guardians across the country …. is highly, highly suspect.” This practice lends itself to abuses as have occurred in the eugenics movement. That was a concern in the Spears case.
The case of Britney Spears contains remnants of eugenics, or at least the problem of other people (in this case a court-appointed conservatorship) making decisions to the harm of another adult. Britney Spears is a 39-year-old female adult with no serious disabilities – at least not the kind of challenges common to other celebrities who started as child actors. These important life decisions, especially reproductive decisions, should be made by Britney Spears and her fiancé. Michaela Curran effectively dealt with this problem in her article.
 Quoted in Curran, 2021.
 Curran, 2021.
 Curran, 2021.
 ACOG Committee Opinion. Sterilization of Women: Ethical Issues and Considerations. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Number 695. April 2017. https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2017/04/sterilization-of-women-ethical-issues-and-considerations
 Curran 2022.
 Curran, 2022.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.