TED Tries, And Mostly Fails, To Smooth Over Abortion Controversy


On Thursday, the nonprofit TED attempted to clarify its position on abortion as a human rights issue, amid mounting pressure from reproductive rights advocates. The group came under fire after Jessica Valenti reported that a spokesperson told her abortion doesn’t fit into TED’s focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”

After NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a petition pressuring TED to change its policy and commit to covering abortion-related issues, the organization quickly responded, writing in a blog post that there’s no official policy prohibiting talks related to abortion.

“We welcome talks and conversation on abortion as a social justice issue,” TED writes, claiming that the spokesperson quoted by Valenti was “taken out of context.” On Twitter, Ted Talks’ official account explains that neglecting to cover abortion is “not an intentional oversight,” but acknowledges that it has been a “blind spot.” The nonprofit is encouraging people to recommend experts in the field of reproductive rights to host future TED Talks.

Valenti shot back on Friday, contesting TED’s assertion that she took its spokesperson’s quote of context. “But beyond the question of the quote — the veracity of which is not in dispute, and the context of which is abundantly clear — is the question of the facts,” Valenti writes. “The fact is that TED has never hosted a talk on abortion. The fact is that of all the proposed talks that have been sent their way on abortion, they have rejected 100% of them.”

Aspen Baker is one of the applicants who received a rejection letter from TED after pitching an abortion-related talk.

In 2012, Baker applied to a TED conference in San Francisco, a community event held in partnership with TedWomen that was soliciting talks on the theme “The Space Between.” Baker, who founded the nonprofit organization Exhale — which is focused on making connections between individuals who have chosen to have an abortion — thought it would be a perfect opportunity to explore the complicated landscape of personal abortion stories. She provided ThinkProgress with a copy of her proposal to TED.

“Ambiguous stories, stories firmly planted in the grey areas of human experience, stories that live in the spaces between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life, stories with complicated situations and an unclear message facilitate revolutionary cultural experiences that we need more of: An invitation for people to explore, engage, and consider personal experiences with abortion in ways they never previously imagined,” Baker wrote in her proposal.

The event’s organizers ultimately turned her down, promising to keep her application on file for future events. Baker and her colleagues have not pitched anything to TED since.

“They had 50 applicants, and I’m sure they picked well. But it certainly seemed like there couldn’t have been a better potential match for TED to address abortion,” Baker told ThinkProgress. Like TED, Exhale doesn’t take a stance on abortion from a policy perspective, and is interested in having open-ended conversations on the topic that aren’t constrained by political affiliation.

NARAL is keeping up the pressure on TED, encouraging the organization to think carefully about ensuring that speakers like Baker are selected to participate.

“We are pleased that TED engaged with the many people who expressed confusion and outrage about their stated policy on abortion access and care as a topic for their influential talks,” the group’s president, Ilyse Hogue, said in a statement. “We do believe that actions speak louder than words and we are committed to working with them to facilitate any number of thinkers, writers, and advocates to address this issue that affects one of every three women.”

Baker pointed out that this current controversy swirling around TED is, unfortunately, an example of why mainstream platforms often hesitate to wade into abortion issues. The space is often fraught with political battles. But she still believes that places like TED can provide an important space for moving beyond abortion as a culture war issue — and, instead, recognizing that it’s a varied life experience that impacts Americans across the political spectrum.

“There’s a huge opportunity here. Since TED isn’t a place to take a position on something, that feels like a really good place for an interesting conversation to happen,” Baker explained to ThinkProgress. “It has the potential to infuse something different, an example of a cultural conversation that’s insightful and engaging but that’s outside of politics… They can lead a real discussion about abortion with emotional honesty and nuance, if they so choose.”