Rethinking the Rhetoric

Sarah Zaman '05


Sarah Zaman '05

Photo: Les Todd.

Pro-choice? Yes. Pro-abortion? Not really," wrote Sarah Zaman on the opinion page of The Kansas City Star last February. "This isn't just a question of terminology--this is how some college kids feel.... We call ourselves 'pro-choice,' but our views are grayer than the label suggests."

Indeed, for Zaman, a senior, it is the labels, not the concepts, that have set the parameters for the current debate over abortion and left little room for the nuanced views of a new generation. "I was a lot more middle-ground than I thought," she says. "And I can't speak for everyone, but I think a lot of college kids are tired of the either-or rhetoric. It doesn't allow for meaningful discussion. We always hear about [abortion] in terms of black and white. And in class I was finding this gray area."

The class was Professor Kathy Rudy's "Genetic and Reproductive Ethics," which Zaman took fall semester. It examines the frontiers of genetic manipulation and reproductive therapies, and takes on the ethical questions surrounding surrogate motherhood, abortion, and cloning. One day, Zaman recalls, Rudy conducted a class exercise in which she acted the part of an old pro-life friend. "We had to explain and defend our pro-choice stance to her. We had to figure out how to have that discussion without reaching dead ends, and that meant acknowledging our own uncertainties."

After the class ended, Zaman says, Rudy urged her to keep going, "to take what I was saying in class and do something with it. She said, 'Write an op-ed and send it out to papers.' So, I did. I went home over Christmas break and wrote it, and I sent it to the Duke News Service and asked them to send it to papers."

It was the sort of nudge Rudy, a two-time Distinguished Teaching Award winner, is well known for giving. "I want them to know the theories involved in the issue," she told Duke Dialogue in 2000 after winning her second award. "But I don't want them to deal with the issues abstractly."

In the weeks after Zaman's op-ed ran in The Kansas City Star, Raleigh's News & Observer, and The Dallas Morning News, e-mail messages flooded in--"from abortion-clinic nurses, Republican parliamentarians, professors, veterans of the Roe v. Wade rallies, grandmothers in their eighties," she says. "I managed to infuriate both sides. But some people told me I'd actually articulated things they'd been feeling for a long time."

Zaman, who'd never before written for publication, says the experience was revelatory in a way nothing in her college career had ever been. For all of her activities--she is pre-med, plays violin in the Duke Symphony Orchestra, and volunteers in Duke's chapter of the Red Cross--this was the first time she'd taken something from the classroom directly into the world, in effect exporting a campus dialogue far beyond the campus borders.

"It's pretty difficult," she says. "You have to distill your argument to a single page. But it's very gratifying, too. All of a sudden, it works. You're having an impact. You're having conversations with people you'd never have talked to otherwise. It makes me want to try it again. There are so many issues I could tackle--Social Security, prenatal drug abuse, euthanasia.... Who knows?"

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