Quick Hit: Why hasn’t TED ever had a talk about abortion?


Feministing founder Jessica Valenti has an important piece at The Nation on the rise of corporate feminism–and the dangers it could pose to the movement. She argues that we’re in an exciting moment when feminism is enjoying mainstream popularity like never before. But as “thought leader” projects, like TED Talks, embrace feminist values, they tend to focus more on feel-good “empowerment” and the more controversial–but vitally important–issues like abortion risk getting left behind.

Jessica explains how she started to feel concerned when she attended last year’s TEDWomen conference and realized she hadn’t heard anyone mention abortion. 

Soon after, I discovered that TED and TEDWomen have never featured a talk on abortion. (Two TEDx events have, but these local, independently organized conferences are not conducted under the auspices of TED.)

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into 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 explained. 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. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?


But TEDWomen and feminism are not synonymous, and we’re in trouble if we start to think they are. The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights. Sometimes it will even cheerlead for women when their accomplishments roll back other women’s rights.

Jessica goes on to explain how things get “complicated when powerful organizations or projects that generally support feminist values—like MAKERS, TED or Lean In—lay claim to the term.” On the one hand, the very fact that the “empowerment elite” wants to identify with feminism shows how strong the movement has become: “powerful people couldn’t comfortably show up at the party until it was well under way.” And, of course, we want feminist messages to be spread even more widely. Making feminism accessible has always been one of the main goals of this blog, after all. (Which is why there’s no question that which ideas TED considers “worth spreading” matters–they really do spread. I hear one of my peers say, “I was watching this TED Talk…” all the time.) But, as Jessica writes, “the mainstream acceptance of feminist values means broader influence, but it also ensures that the movement’s message is vulnerable to dilution and misuse.”

TED quickly responded to Jessica’s piece yesterday, claiming that, contrary to claims of their content director, they do not, in fact, have a policy against discussing abortion and they “agree that abortion and reproductive care are core issues of social justice and human rights.” Apparently, the 30-year omission was simply an oversight. Hopefully that means we can expect to see their first abortion-related talk at the next conference?

In the meantime, it’s up to feminist activists to keep asking these questions about what kind feminism is being promoted to the mainstream by these powerful projects–and keep pushing to ensure it’s one we believe in. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that with increasing popularity will come “an incomplete vision of feminist goals being presented as the most vital.”

Read the rest of Jessica’s piece here.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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