Editorial Note: After The Nation's Jessica Valenti first reported that TED Talks had featured no talks on abortion, saying that it did not fit into “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights,” TED staff claimed that the quote from Content Director Kelly Stoetzel was taken out of context and the organization was “welcome talks and conversations on abortion as a social justice issue.” In response Valenti released a screen shot of the email exchange between herself and Stoetzel to demonstrate that the quote was presented in the correct context.
This article originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted here with their permission.
TED Talks, the award-winning videos produced by a nonprofit group of the same name, promise to cover “ideas worth spreading.” The videos feature public figures ranging from Bill Gates to Rick Warren, as well as leading intellectuals and scientists that don’t have as much name recognition, and they often go viral. In 2010, the organization launched TEDWomen, a spin-off intended to cover gender issues.
But, as Jessica Valenti reports at The Nation, there’s something conspicuously absent from TED’s hundreds of videos on innovation, science, and human rights. TED is happy to cover issues like workplace equality, access to contraception, and feminist theory. But why don’t the nonprofit’s videos ever cover abortion access?
When Valenti asked TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, whether omitting abortion is a conscious decision, Stoetzel confirmed it. “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, explaining that it simply doesn’t fit into TED’s focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”
TED’s stance disappointed reproductive health advocates, who believe that ensuring access to the full range of women’s health care is a critically important aspect of human rights. Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, quickly penned a letter to TED asking the organization to rethink its position. Hogue expresses concern that TED has “fallen prey to the insidious campaign by an extreme minority” to portray abortion as extreme, rather than acknowledging that it’s simply part of reproductive freedom.
“The intersection of abortion access and human rights is at the forefront of the cultural conversation,” Hogue writes. “In fact, the hesitation to discuss these issues among inspired thinkers, writers, scientists and advocates prevents us from moving forward into an enlightened future.”
Indeed, thousands of women around the world are still dying because they don’t have access to safe abortion services. The United Nations has repeatedly pointed out that oppressing women by denying them reproductive health care, including abortion, amounts to a form of torture. And this isn’t a hypothetical debate; it’s playing out on the international stage. In 2012, when a 31-year-old woman died in an Irish Catholic hospital because she wasn’t allowed to have an emergency abortion, thousands of people took to the streets in protest — and Ireland agreed to amend its stringent abortion ban for the first time in over 100 years.
Ultimately, TED’s decision to exclude abortion from its overall mission sends a clear message about the organization’s assumption that abortion is something that can’t be discussed in the open — a harmful attitude that’s deeply ingrained in U.S. society.
“Abortion stigma is the belief that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable, and TED is reinforcing this by deliberately excluding talks about abortion,” Steph Herold, the deputy director of a new organization called Sea Change that’s working to eliminate abortion stigma, explained to ThinkProgress. “Separating out abortion in this way has real consequences — not only are they suggesting that abortion is not an ‘acceptable’ topic of conversation, but by extension, they’re implying that abortion is not as important as other human rights issues, and that abortion is a shameful experience that should be silenced.”
While the official TED-sanctioned talks shy away from abortion, the topic has made its way into other types of TED’s community products. TEDxTalks are independently organized events that don’t necessarily get approval from the larger nonprofit, and one of them covered abortion back in 2012. Herold and her colleagues wish the rest of TED would follow suit — and they’re ready to help.
Herold, whose organization has developed a theory of change for shifting the culture away from abortion stigma, would be happy to work with TED in the future. “We would love to give a TED talk about using these tools and strategies to create culture change around abortion!” she told ThinkProgress.
“I would love to see TED begin a discussion on how we support our friends and family as they experience abortion,” Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist who sits on the board at Sea Change, added. “When I talk to people who have abortion experiences, they say it’s the isolation, lack of support, and fear of rejection from loved ones that hurts ... Being a supportive listener to someone sharing an abortion experience can be revolutionary.”
This isn’t the first time that the nonprofit has landed in hot water for declining to “spread” the ideas it considers to be too controversial. In 2012, after a venture capitalist gave a TED Talk in which he argued that taxing the rich was the best way to spur economic growth, the organization initially declined to release it. Chris Anderson, the director of TED, explained that he decided not to make it public because “it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We’re in the middle of an election year in the US.” After coming under some pressure, TED later reversed its decision.
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UPDATE: NARAL has escalated its campaign against TED Talks, launching a petition to put more pressure on the nonprofit. The pro-choice group hopes to get 30,000 signatures urging TED’s director to “change this policy and allow for authentic conversation around the issue of abortion rights.” Bracey Sherman has also initiated a petition on Change.org.