TED Aborts Its Mission When It Comes to Reproductive Rights

Why bother having talks if we’re not going to discuss what really matters right now?

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Repeat after me: Women’s rights are human rights.

The mission of TED talks is to produce free, online videos featuring the bright lights of technology, design, science, the arts, and other cultural leaders who present “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Before viewing TED talks, I knew nothing about global crime networks or the dreams of endangered cultures and now I do. Consider me educated. Beyoncé was so inspired by the charismatic Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, she sampled it in her song “Flawless.”

TED talks, which are also billed as “a platform for discussion,” have become so popular TED begat TEDWomen to address “gender issues.”

My first reaction when I hear that an organization has started a “women’s section” is annoyance, followed by eye-rolling. Women’s issues aren’t human issues? What are men’s issues? War? Women serve in the military, women lead troops into battle, women are killed in war. When an organization suddenly opens a “women’s section” (Is that a goodie bag? Oh, I hope it’s full of lavender sachets, tampons, and chocolate) I feel like I’ve been shunted off to the kiddie table.

The message is clear: There is no room for women at the grown-up’s table. No, you can’t pull up a chair and chat with the men! Nothing you have to say could possibly be as important or interesting as our discussion of drone strikes, putters, and how much hair on your balls is too much.

I understand the desire, applaud the energy and the work that goes into creating these female-first sites and wanting to more deeply explore “women’s issues,” but let’s be real: Quite often, the people that most need to be tuned into these “women’s issues” are men.

If TED finds that an overwhelming interest in issues facing women today—gender equality in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, fixing the economy, affordable health care, gun violence, and oh, yes, reproductive rights—why not give them more coverage? In the case of abortion, perhaps the most polarizing issue in America today—why avoid covering it all together?

TED talks have so far shied away from the subject of abortion. Well, that’s Ted. One might assume that TEDWomen (that’s Theodora, Ted for short) would be willing to embrace the topic. Nope. When TED spokesperson Kelly Stoetzel was asked why, in a discussion of empowering women, abortion didn’t warrant any attention, she explained that TED talks focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality, and human rights.”

Stop right there.

The United Nations, for one, has a bone to pick with this logic. Last year the UN released a statement that called depriving women of the right to abortion or “reproductive justice” not just discriminatory but abusive, cruel, inhumane, degrading, and tantamount to torture.”

But what would the United Nations know?

It seems reasonable to expect that both an organization devoted to addressing the most pressing issues in our culture, and one designed to address gender issues would want to contribute to the conversation, especially now, when one of this nation’s two parties has pledged to destroy the law protecting a woman’s right to choose—and indeed in just three years has enacted more abortion restrictions than in the entire last decade.

But no. The brand of find-yourself-love-yourself-market-yourself feminism TEDWomen is promoting (Speakers have included, Jane Fonda: Life’s Third Act. Sheryl Sandberg: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.) can’t kick enough balloons off the dance floor to make room for a discussion of abortion? 

It’s not that TEDWomen talks don’t go hard. Some do. War correspondent Janine di Giovanni shares battle stories from the trenches; victim-rights advocate Ester Soler recalls how she got Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994; Sunitha Krishnan talks about fighting sex slavery. Which makes it all the more shocking: 1,685 talks in the online archive, and not one about access to abortion, or the politics of abortion?

Considering that more and more schools are doing away with sex-education classes, the only sound medical information some kids might have access to could be via an online TED talk. Dispel the lies that the anti-choice party is disseminating such as: abortion causes cancer; you’ll probably never be able to have children if you have an abortion; your baby can smell and hear you already.

When Jessica Valenti, reporting for The Nation, asked TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, why in the hundreds of TED and TEDWomen videos there wasn’t one on abortion, she replied, “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.” As you might imagine this has upset a lot of people. A state tax bill? Denying women the right to abortion—be it because she doesn’t want a child, can’t afford a child, is in grave physical danger, or isn’t keen on carrying her rapist’s baby—is on par with a state tax bill? I hope she means a tax on something big like aerosol cheese.

TED says their mission is to discuss topics addressing “justice, inequality, and human rights.” How is the issue of reproductive rights not an idea worth spreading? I have to wonder if this isn’t a reflection of the cultural jihad the radical GOP has launched against women. The first steps on the road to abolishing a woman’s right to choose: Separate women’s rights from human rights and stigmatize abortion.

Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, believes this is the case. In a letter written to TED she voices her 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.”

This morning on the TEDBlog the “TED Staff” published a clarification of Stoetzel’s remarks. Saying they did not have a policy against discussing abortion, but, “Abortion is a tough topic to talk about, for everyone, because of the passionate responses it evokes.” However, they insist they remain committed “to a stance of open-mindedness and respectful dialogue. And we seek talks that build bridges and spark conversation.”

The first step in overcoming obstacles is to recognize them and come up with a strategy. Okay, TED and TEDWomen: I get it, tough topics, like abortion, and the passionate responses they evoke make you queasy and uncomfortable. You’re a delicate flower. I recognize that. Now that you recognize you have a problem, you can create a strategy to overcome it. TED, you attract millions of people to your site, you present a unique platform for a free and open discussion of ideas, so here’s what you’re going to do: Lady up, and give us a TEDtalk about abortion.  

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