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Britney Spears' Forced Contraception Revelation Sheds Light On Reproductive Justice In The U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Among the many shocking revelations made by Britney Spears on her conservatorship while appearing virtually before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, there was this. She said those overseeing her are forcing her to remain on birth control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRITNEY SPEARS: I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's from leaked YouTube audio of the hearing verified by NPR. The statement, though, did not surprise people familiar with the history of forced sterilization and reproductive justice in the United States. We're joined now by author and medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington. Welcome to the program.

HARRIET A WASHINGTON: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To start off, what was your reaction to Britney's statement?

WASHINGTON: Well, frankly, I was surprised. I don't follow entertainment news very closely, but I suppose what surprised me was to hear about this befalling a young WASP woman of means because although involuntary sterilization is - sounds shocking, it's actually something that has been practiced very widely in this country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of forcibly sterilizing a feeble-minded woman in a well-known case called Buck v. Bell. Talk to me about that.

WASHINGTON: I'll be happy to. And Buck v. Bell in 1927, it's important to note, was never overturned. In that ruling, the Supreme Court argued that it was perfectly acceptable to force sterilization on a woman because of her low intelligence, her alleged low intelligence, and that it's better for all the world, you know, to prevent the birth of more low-intelligence children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think what is also striking about the Britney case is that here is a woman who has been recording records, performing, then working essentially in a very high pressure, very visible job. And yet apparently her conservators, including her father, are imposing birth control on her.

WASHINGTON: Well, it raised a question with me. We're reading claims people are making. I don't know what rationale is being offered for forcing her into sterility.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also don't know if, in fact, that is true.

WASHINGTON: Exactly. That's her claim. So we don't know what's actually happening here. It would be interesting to find out what kind of claims this is predicated on if indeed she is being forced to have an IUD implanted and retained.

And I think we have to remember that in the 1980s and '90s, 85% of the women who were forced to have Norplant implanted - it's a contraceptive that rendered a woman infertile for a period of at least five years. This was forcibly implanted in Black and Hispanic women. And why? As part of a court sentence. Women who had been brought up to court were told by judges, OK, you can go to jail for eight years, or you can have Norplant implanted and be on probation - Norplant or jail. So in that case, the rationale had to do with controlling their behavior. And I wonder if indeed what we're reading is actually true, then that's certainly something I would consider in this scenario.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the impact will be of Britney Spears coming forward with these kinds of allegations when we think about the history of this country that you have been detailing?

WASHINGTON: Well, a lot depends on how well do her allegations reflect what actually is transpiring. If they do reflect it, I hope that it will lend some visibility to the plight of the many, many women in this country who have their fertility imperiled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Harriet A. Washington. Her book, "Medical Apartheid," won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 2007. Thank you so much.

WASHINGTON: My pleasure, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.