TED talks think abortion has nothing to do with "justice, inequality and human rights"

An official TED talk policy has erased abortion rights from its conferences for close to 30 years

By Katie McDonough

Published February 13, 2014 7:56PM (EST)


There are many reasons not to like TED talks, and Nation writer Jessica Valenti has discovered another: The organization's well-heeled proprietors don't think abortion rights are an "idea worth spreading."

Neither TED nor TEDWomen have ever featured a talk on abortion care, and far from being a bizarre, 30-year oversight, the erasure of abortion from TED conferences is the product of official policy.

A TED talk addressing abortion access does not fit with the organization's focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights,” TED content director Kelly Stoetzel told Valenti. "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."

TED has certainly featured strong feminist speakers like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but it isn't a radical space, and feminism is a radical movement. As Valenti notes, TED's focus is more about "cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights." In this context, its position on abortion rights, while entirely misguided, isn't exactly surprising.

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.

The TED policy is also emblematic of the larger cultural tendency to cordon off abortion rights from other issues of social and economic justice. As Valenti points out, there is ample room within feminism(s) for complicated personal views about abortion, but you can't be a feminist if you don't support abortion rights. The full articulation of reproductive rights -- both to become a parent and to terminate a pregnancy -- are fundamental to women's autonomy.

As Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for RH Reality Check, explains in the piece, the TED-esque rebranding of feminism -- which mirrors long-standing fractures and exclusions within feminism itself -- also functions to "exclude women of color and benefit privileged Western feminists.” Feminist writer Flavia Dzodan calls it “an ongoing commodification of politics” that turns feminism into "a product we consume rather than a movement we build and a framework of political analysis.”

The real power -- and threat, actually -- of feminism has always been its theory and praxis, not the lecture circuit. That said, TED can serve as a platform to amplify feminist politics, but to do so, it must embrace the full -- and often messy -- range of those politics.

"In the end, what I found so worrisome about TEDWomen was that I was seeing firsthand what happens when 'feminism' isn’t defined by feminists," Valenti writes. "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."

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Corporate Feminism Reproductive Justice Reproductive Rights Ted Ted Talks Tedwomen