TED Talks Says They’re Totally Into Abortion Talks, After Employee Says Otherwise

A content director for the ideas conference said abortion doesn't fit their “human rights” focus Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

TED, the feel-good conference where smart people present big-picture solutions,  is having an abortion identity crisis.

Kelly Stoetzel, a content director at TED and TEDWomen co-host, recently told The Nation’s Jessica Valenti that abortion did not apply to their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”

“Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel said.

“She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring,” Valenti wrote.

Facing questions about their position on abortion talks, the official TED Twitter account originally posted a Tweet saying that they could “confirm this rumor is not true.” A few hours later, TED posted a blog entry that said Stoetzel’s comment was taken out of context. The conference welcomes “talks and conversation on abortion as a social justice issue,” but it “doesn’t take a position on issues,” TED wrote.

And yet, out of the 1,685 talks indexed on their online archive, neither TED nor the spinoff conference TEDWomen has ever featured a talk specifically about abortion access. A few talks do deal with the selective abortion of female fetuses in some countries.

To be sure, TED has featured several feminist voices like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED talk Beyonce famously sampled on her newest album. But the apparent oversight on abortion is not sitting well with some feminist groups. NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a petition urging TED to begin including the subject in their talks, and several feminist writers have expressed frustration with what they see as the conference’s resistance to facing contentious issues, especially pertaining to women and underprivileged groups.

“TED offers a highly sanitized, neatly packaged version of feminism that can be comfortably embraced by ‘thought leaders’ more interested in ‘leaning in’ than making sure the women of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley can access basic medical care, that working mothers in New York can feed their families, or that pregnant women in Colorado aren’t put in prison if they suffer a miscarriage,” wrote Salon’s Katie McDonough.

TED talks have recently been criticised for being smarmy “techno-spiritual sermons” where corporatism abounds and “every idea is treated like an iPad.” The accusation of elitism follows the conference around.

“Instead of the messy, nuanced reality, we got a carefully curated package of what powerful people think feminism should be — or, at least, which feminism would be most appealing,” Valenti writes. We’ll have to wait and see if TED is willing to get messier.