I have been following the #freeBritney movement since the beginning of the year, but I was as shocked as most people when I read Britney’s full statement against her conservatorship. In particular, I couldn’t believe that Britney wasn’t allowed to remove her IUD so that she could grow her family.
In a conversation with friends, we all expressed our fear that this case will be foundational for future cases, opening the possibility that women with mental health problems will have their reproductive rights taken away.
But as I did more research, I was shocked to learn that this type of reproductive coercion is already common for women with mental illness and developmental disabilities. In fact, Britney’s case is only one in a long line of state-sponsored sterilization.
As explained in “America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement,” Indiana was the first state to pass sterilization laws in 1907. A quarter of states had passed sterilization laws by 1914, when Harry Laughlin created the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law. This law proposed the sterilization of the “feebleminded” (as the law itself states) and those that had physical and mental defects. Eventually, 32 of the 50 states passed forced sterilization laws.
Then came the 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, which made sterilization federally legal. The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 allowed for sterilization of a mental institution inmate, Carrie Buck. The court found this to be constitutional because it would prevent the nation from “being swamped with incompetence […] Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
There is a long history of eugenics that perpetuates the ideology that disabled people should not or cannot give birth or raise kids. During my research into the American eugenics movement, I was proud to see that the Church was a constant opponent to sterilization. In An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, Sharon M. Leon explains that this is because Catholics regarded (and still regard) three principles as fundamental: the “sacredness of the individual,” the right to marry, and the right to parenthood. Forced sterilization violates all three.
The Catholic Church successfully blocked the passage of sterilization laws in large portions of the Northeast, as well as in Minnesota, Illinois, Arizona, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Louisiana. There was a lone dissenter in Buck – and he was the only Catholic Justice. In an editorial in America after Buck v. Bell, the author stated that “our objection is based on the fact that every man […] is an image of God, not a mere animal, that he is a human being, and not a mere social factor”
I’m sure it’s no surprise that Catholics were heavily involved in public policy debates over reproductive issues. Yet since the Church is most known today for battles over contraception and abortion, I expect that fewer people realize how pivotal American Catholic opposition was in preventing the advance of eugenics in a number of states. The Church’s stance on sterilization, abortion, and contraceptives are all consistent with our respect for life and basic human rights.
Buck v. Bell is still law today, which means that mentally ill or disabled people continue to have little control over their reproductive health – even over their bodies. As Elizabeth DeLoria shared in a chain of tweets, “One of the first things that happens to people with psychosis is that they have their reproductive rights taken away” She explains how getting a Mirena IUD was a bargaining tool for her to be released from inpatient care.
As a woman with a current diagnosis of anxiety and a history of depression who would like kids, this terrifies me. Yes, I can still work, communicate effectively, make decisions, post on social media, etc., but that is not the point. As the Church tells us, we should never frame reproductive coercion in terms of whether someone is mentally ill enough to “deserve” being sterilized. Every single person should be granted the rights of personhood.