Don't Raise Your Voice, Improve Your Argument

Anna Murphy '19
Guest Columnist

 Slamming the door on her way out, an attendee caught my attention as she prematurely exited the abortion debate between Nadine Strossen and Stephanie Gray this past week at UVa Law.

This momentary disruption contrasted with the polite silence of Caplin Pavilion where two powerful, expert women intelligently debated the highly contentious issue of abortion. Sitting in the audience, I thought of the principle spoken of by Desmond Tutu: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”[1]

This article is to provoke thought regarding how you, I, and our colleagues debate generally as well as in the specific context of abortion. I will give you objective facts about abortion, applaud and critique the recent debate between Ms. Strossen (former ACLU president) and Ms. Gray (co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform),[2] challenge how you think about abortion, and then suggest a common ground that both pro-life and pro-choice advocates can support in their quest to protect women’s rights. I welcome comments and critiques, and would love to have a personal discussion with you regarding this article (please see my contact information below).

To begin, I want to recognize abortion is a highly-charged, emotional issue. It triggers conversations regarding gender inequality, racial inequality, poverty and economic prospects, bodily autonomy, human rights, ethics, religion, and morality. I honestly cannot conceive of a more controversial topic that attaches itself to such an array of concerns. Ironically, both sides recognize that gender inequality and other topics are valid and crucial interests, yet we rudely disengage from conversations and throw ad hominems at a person who is often trying to maximize those same interests from a different lens. We therefore miss opportunities to sharpen arguments, know what the opposition thinks and understands, and find common ground on which we can start solving societal problems.

Additionally, I want to express my support for the approximately eighty women here (statistically) at UVa Law who have had an abortion.[3] Research shows that each of those eighty women likely had an abortion due to poverty, educational concerns, or relationship problems with her partner.[4] I implore you to further research the demographics, the reasons, and the procedures of abortion in order to be an informed debater.

Now to last week’s debate on the question of “Should abortion be legal?” I want to first acknowledge and applaud Ms. Strossen and Ms. Gray’s civility, expertise, and accomplishments. They shook hands, spoke in a friendly manner, avoided ad hominems, and presented compelling arguments and counter-arguments. Although Ms. Gray also did so implicitly, I appreciated Ms. Strossen’s explicit attempts at finding common ground.

Ms. Gray began the debate, following the coin toss to determine speaking order, with the provocative question of, “What do civil societies expect of parents?” She claimed (and I hope we all agree on at least this) that we expect parents not to beat or otherwise harm their children. Her three organized points were as follows: (1) parenthood begins at fertilization, (2) human rights begin when humans do, and (3) abortion violates human rights and parenthood.

Ms. Gray stated that humans undeniably produce human offspring, and “personhood/humanity” cannot logically be based on size, level of development, environment, or dependency. For example, is a 6’4” person more human than a 5’1” person? Is a person with a mental handicap less human than someone with an IQ of 160? Does being in a hospital make a person less human than if she were in a classroom? Is a two-year-old, who needs his parents to feed him, less human than a six-year-old who can prepare his own PB&J? Squarely addressing why we tend to draw the line at pre-born versus birth or at viability for “personhood,” Ms. Gray also asked a challenging question: if “personhood” is based on vitality outside of the womb, why do we allow technology to define our humanity? Given that (a) technology in the US can allow a 21-week-old fetus to survive outside the womb,[5] while (b) technology in less developed countries does not have that capability, are American 21-week-old fetuses more human than those in Afghanistan?[6] Ms. Gray's conclusion is that being conceived from human parents defines our humanity rather than size, level of development, environment, or dependency.

In response, Ms. Strossen focused her arguments on Supreme Court precedents and how Ms. Gray’s arguments overlooked the dire realities of unwanted pregnancies on women in sensitive situations. For example: poor, racial minority women who are pregnant, in college, and have neither a supportive partner nor family have bleak options. Roe v. Wade gave women the right to have an abortion in defined circumstances, [7] and neither the State nor individuals should impose their “independent principles of morality” on women.[8]  Furthermore, forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term violates her bodily autonomy, exacerbates gender inequality, and harms her career potential.[9]

Both sides of the debate supported their positions well, but each had a unique flaw. Ms. Gray did not satisfactorily give solutions for how to alleviate difficult cases of women who are impoverished, in school, or have less-than-ideal partners. Granted, the debate was on the question of “Should abortion be legal?” rather than “How do we help women who are pregnant?” In turn, Ms. Strossen repeatedly refused to argue at what point a fetus becomes human. Instead, she hinged her arguments on Supreme Court reasoning and dicta in addition to heart-wrenching realities faced by women. Such appeals were compelling, but nonetheless emotional appeals.

Before I suggest a common ground for both pro-choice and pro-life advocates (and I promise that we do have common ground), I will challenge you with this question: when do you begin defending human rights? How large does your client have to be? How mentally or physically developed? In which environment does she have to be? Does it matter whether she can care for herself or may she be dependent on her guardian?

Are you purposefully overlooking the question of “when does human life begin?” Do you have good evidence and arguments beyond emotional appeals?

Here is where I believe we all can agree: we must practically empower women who are in school, who are poor, who are in unsupportive relationships so that they can have a choice. Let us advocate for more pregnant-friendly school policies, let us find creative economic solutions for poor women, and let us be better human beings willing to come to the aid of our pregnant partners regardless of whether they will have an abortion or not. Although I am a pro-life advocate, I believe we must first address the three social issues of (1) lack of educational resources, (2) economic inability, and (3) unsupportive partners before women can truly have a choice. Let us empower women so they are not weighed down by an extrinsic factor when evaluating their decision regarding abortion.

Auspiciously, this debate between Ms. Strossen and Ms. Gray occurred the day of oral argument in Nat’l Inst. of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra,[10] concerning free speech and abortion advocacy. On the issue of abortion, and in discussion of all topics, I ask you to join me in improving arguments to persuade rather than raising our volume to drown out—or walk out on—an opposing viewpoint. Let’s all work together to ensure women do have a choice, and again, please do not hesitate to contact me at to discuss this topic.


[1] “10 Pieces of Wisdom from Desmond Tutu on his Birthday,” Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation (October 7, 2015),
[2] As a disclaimer, I will only discuss what I believe were their strongest points.
[3] See “Induced Abortion in the United States,” Guttmacher Institute, (January 2018), (stating approximately 19% of women in the U.S. have an abortion by age 30). See also “Facts and Statistics,” University of Virginia School of Law, (stating that as of October 5, 2017, there were 913 enrolled students, 46% of whom were women).
[4] Guttmacher Institute, supra note 3.
[5] Bonnie Rochman, “A 21-Week-Old Baby Survives and Doctors Ask, How Young is Too Young to Save?” Time (May 27, 2011),
[6] “Infant Mortality Rate,” Central Intelligence Agency, (Accessed March 24, 2017),
[7] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
[8] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 850 (1992).
[9] See id. at 851.
[10] Nat’l Inst. of Family and Life Advocates, 839 F.3d 823 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 86 U.S.L.W. 3238 (U.S. Nov. 13, 2017) (No. 16-1140).