Britney Spears, Chris Kirkpatrick & Justin Timberlake   (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
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Britney Spears’ Abortion Story Was Hers To Tell — In All Its Complexity

We don’t have to like or enjoy every single abortion experience in order to recognize that abortion care is an absolute right.

by Hannah Matthews
Originally Published: 

Earlier this week, when Heben Nigatu tweeted, “First date idea: we read Britney Spears’ entire memoir together in silence,” I felt that. We all felt that. Said memoir, The Woman in Me, will hit bookshelves on Oct. 24, but an excerpt has already been published in People magazine, and it has the internet abuzz. In it, Spears reveals that in the year 2000, at the age of 19, she experienced an unintended pregnancy. Her boyfriend at the time, Justin Timberlake, convinced her to have an abortion, she writes. “I loved Justin so much. I always expected us to have a family one day. This would just be much earlier than I’d anticipated. But Justin definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy. He said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young.”

My heart broke for her, even before she went on to say: “If it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it,” and, “To this day, it’s one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.”

For many of us, the abortions we have are tools and sources of freedom, of self-determination, of building our own lives and futures on our own terms. For others, who live in families or communities that control and coerce, their abortions (along with other pregnancy outcomes) are just another encapsulation of their lack of freedom to decide how and when they build their families and reproductive futures. It is powerful that Britney Spears is speaking up about her abortion experience — and enraging that she falls into the latter camp. That she can say, I had an abortion, and also: I wouldn’t have chosen it, had I been truly free to choose.

In the years I’ve been working in and writing about abortion care, the abortion experiences I’ve supported and witnessed have been as unique and specific and complex as the individual bodies and lives in which they were unfolding. If you’ve spent any meaningful time with people who’ve had abortions, you know that we can feel as many different ways about our abortions as there are stars in the sky, or drops of bleach and hair gel in the dry-ramen noodles of Timberlake’s 2000s-era curls.

I’ve written about my own complicated abortion story, and about the pressure we feel to tell our stories a certain way in order to hold off the cruelty and propaganda of those who seek to control us with abortion restrictions and outright bans. And I’m here to celebrate Britney’s power and her honesty, even as anti-abortion groups like Students for Life and The National Right to Life Committee have seized on her story as a means of promoting the long-debunked falsehood that most people who have abortions regret them. A fear of these aggressive manipulation tactics, and a wariness of whose abortion stories are told and how, often leads to a hesitation or reluctance among pro-choice and pro-abortion people to engage with stories like Spears’. In other words: we stigmatize them. We make the owners of those stories feel silenced, unseen, ashamed.

It’s beautiful that she has stepped into the power of telling her own story honestly, that she feels safe enough and free enough to say that to us now.

Imagine if speaking about a negative, traumatic, or coercive sexual experience was seen as anti-sex? Or if honesty about a complicated birth experience was interpreted as anti-birth? We don’t have to like or enjoy every single abortion experience in order to recognize that abortion care is just another part of our reproductive lives, and one to which we have an absolute right. Alienating, isolating, or silencing those of us for whom abortion has not solely been a positive, joyful, or even consensual outcome of a pregnancy only reinforces the kind of false binary thinking that keeps us from liberation. It sets up a dichotomy between the good kind of pregnancy or abortion vs. the bad, the “right” kind of abortion story vs. the “wrong,” which often just means the complex, the nuanced, the uncomfortable or messy one we feel is more likely to be weaponized against us by anti-abortion ideologues.

There is an almost-beautiful symmetry of this news appearing first in the pages of People magazine. In 2000, the same year that a 19-year-old Spears had this coercive abortion experience, People put her on its cover, posed and smiling, alongside text that read: “Pop Princess: Britney Spears, Too Sexy, Too Soon? Little girls love her, but her image makes some moms nervous. The controversial teen singer sets the record straight about breast implants (no way!), much older guys (yuck!), and e-mailing Prince William (‘He’s so sweet!’)”

Too Sexy Too Soon?

Twenty-three years later, I watch as discourse swirls around her abortion and what she has written about it in this same publication. If People is a kind of proxy for broad popular opinion, when I look back at that cover, I’m reminded that we have always felt entitled to details about — and ownership of — Britney’s sex life, her body, her inner thoughts and outer narrative, and “image.” Her story.

Reproductive justice is not just abortion justice. It’s far more than just access to reproductive health care. It is the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. Sex, pregnancy, abortion, contraception, parenthood: All of these things must be freely available and accessible to us, and all must be sought by us with our full, informed consent.

Britney Spears was denied this right from the very beginning. Her parents fed her into the Disney machine as a child. She sang and danced and spent long hours on sets, her young body proving enormously profitable for the adults around her. Her virginity, as defined by our archaic, patriarchal, and nonsensical cultural concept, was the topic of national conversation. Through all of this, she had to smile demurely, to laugh it off, to play along.

When she stopped playing along — whether by expressing discomfort, shaving her head, not performing her music in the way we had come to expect of her (or even by committing the ultimate Hot Girl Crime: gaining weight), the public was merciless. She was hounded by paparazzi, placed under a legal conservatorship, and — no stranger to reproductive coercion — forced to endure a long-acting internal form of contraception against her will. Before that, her other pregnancies, which ended in the births of her two children, and then her parenting of those children, has been scrutinized and criticized endlessly, by People and Page Six and OhNoTheyDidnt and by the public, across the vicious comment sections of celebrity gossip blogs and on once-thriving social media platforms like Twitter. She has never been free of our opinions, our judgment, our desire to control.

It should come as no surprise, then, that an abortion Spears had at the age of 19 was not one she would have chosen. And it’s beautiful that she has stepped into the power of telling her own story honestly, that she feels safe enough and free enough to say that to us now.

I believe that another world is possible, one in which everyone has the information, support, resources, and freedom to make their own reproductive decisions at all times.

The thing about bodily autonomy is that not only does it allow people to do things with and to their bodies that you don't necessarily like or wouldn't choose for yourself, but also to speak about those things in ways you might not like or choose for yourself. I believe that another world is possible, one in which everyone has the information, support, resources, and freedom to make their own reproductive decisions at all times. And in this world, where that is far from true, I believe that every time someone is empowered to tell their own abortion story publicly, exactly how and when they want to, and in the language and medium of their choosing, we are that much closer to liberation.

Britney Spears owns her body, and she owns the stories she chooses to tell about it, too. She’s the only expert on her life, her pregnancies, her self — including her abortion. And we’re so lucky she is choosing to share that expertise with the rest of us, so that we may learn from it and lean into our own areas of expertise: our bodies, experiences, and lives.

Let us become the people who deserve the privilege of holding others’ abortion stories — no matter how palatable or politically expedient. Let us earn the privilege of learning the truth about Britney Spears’ abortion, from the only person who knows it and can tell it: her. Let us always strive to be a worthy audience to the storytellers all around us at all times, the sole arbiters of their own bodies’ truths, and on this subject, the only people qualified to speak.

Hannah Matthews is a journalist, essayist, and abortion care worker and the author of the book, You Or Someone You Love: Reflections From An Abortion Doula. Her work has appeared in ELLE, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Catapult, McSweeney's, and many other publications, Follow her on Twitter, subscribe to her newsletter of abortion love letters, or visit her website for more information.

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