Unspeakable Conversations

Could the killing of an unborn disabled child be considered acceptable in today’s society? Selective infanticide is a very controversial topic that many have argued about over past years. In her article “Unspeakable Conversations” disabilities activist and lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson demonstrates her viewpoint on this issue. She writes this article as a story, with herself being the narrator. It follows her journey as she feuds with Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor, who has an opposing perspective regarding the killing of unborn disabled children.

With this in mind, Johnson reveals her point of view using the strategy of a Rogerian argument and the rhetorical elements of ethos and pathos. Using the model of Rogerian argument, McBryde Johnson’s intent was to provide the audience with her position in a respectful manner while degrading her opponent, Professor Singer, in the process. “Rogerian argument is a conflict solving technique based on finding common ground instead of polarizing debate” (Wikipedia). It emphasizes a “You win and I win too” solution, one where negotiation and mutual respect are valued (Winthrop).

McBryde Johnson’s view

Throughout the article, it is noticed that while McBryde Johnson’s view is different from that of Singers, she shows empathy towards his thoughts. This is shown through her need to dislike her opponent by disagreeing with the thoughts of Singer. As their professional relationship grows, the audience is able to notice a change in her respect towards his views. “I’ve come to believe that Singer actually is human, and even kind in his way” (McBryde Johnson 9).

This illustrates that she strives to dislike her opponent. Through the remainder of the article, Singer’s caring manner towards Johnson makes a difference in how she presents her argument.

Singers view on the issue is completely opposite of hers, though she is more open to what he has to say. “ Within the strange limits of this strange assignment, it seems Singer is doing all he can to make me comfortable” (McBryde Johnson 7). Singer is respectful towards McBryde Johnson, even though he believes she would be better off dead. Singer approaches his argument against McBryde Johnson exemplifying the idea of a Rogerian argument. As a result, both Singer and McBryde Johnson come to a mutual respect for one another. The credibility of being a disability rights lawyer demonstrates strong ethos throughout the article presented by McBryde Johnson. She has the personal experiences of being disabled. She is an expert witness with lived experiences that add to the ethos of her argument. This use of double ethos gives her the credibility that others do not possess. This allows her to talk about her situations with personal knowledge of the subject matter. With personal experience, she has knowledge surrounding the issue allows the audience to accept what she has to say. For example, McBryde Johnson and her followers explain how disabled people can live relatively happy lives compared to those people without a disability. The presence or absence of a disability does not predict quality of life” (McBryde Johnson 3). Demonstrating that people with disabilities can have a high quality of life, as said before, gives McBryde Johnson credibility to further support her argument. McBryde Johnson is a lawyer who exhibits a high intelligence and also deals with the state legislators in disability activism. For example, she helped pass a bill with the hope of moving toward a world where killing is not such an appealing solution to the problem of disability (McBryde Johnson 9).

McBryde Johnson’s work with the legislation suggests

This is also her way of giving voice to the people who do not have the ability to make a difference on this issue. Furthermore, her vast knowledge of her disability gives the credit that can provide evidence for the argument being presented throughout the article. In the article, McBryde Johnson also vastly appeals to the audience’s pathos or emotions. She does so by discussing her disability in detail, how people treat her, and her struggles in her journey to Princeton.

Also, she makes the audience feel sympathy for her when describing the physical aspects of her disability. McBryde Johnson says, “At this stage of my life, I’m Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin”. This gives the audience a sense of her life, and makes them compassionate towards her and more eager to hear what she has to say. But as you can see by her picture, she makes herself sound worse off than she truly is. She intends these descriptions to make people feel sorry for her. By describing her disability in this manner she is wallowing in her own self-pity.

She also explains how people often gawk at her because of her oddly slumped-over shape and large powered wheel chair. This may be the case, but she does not give people enough credit. She feels everyone stares at her, but this is her point of view and attempts to make it the audience’s as well. This causes the audience to feel more caring, and allows them notice how staring can be hurtful to others. She further appeals to the emotions of her audience by explaining the hardships that come along with traveling. “Delta Airlines has torn up my power chair. It is a fairly frequent occurrence for any air traveler on wheels.

The situation provides the audience with a sense of guilt

When they inform me of the damage in Atlanta, I throw a monumental fit…” (McBryde Johnson 5). The situation is upsetting and also provides the audience with a sense of guilt. Her emotion or pathos appeals directly to her audience because she misleads them with her dramatic word choice about her experience as a person with a disability. In the article, “Unspeakable Conversations” published in the New York Times, Harriet McBryde Johnson illustrates her perspective on selective infanticide using the strategy of a Rogerian argument as well as the use of the rhetorical strategies of ethos and pathos.

She uses these rhetorical elements to provide the audience with a credible source of information and an emotional standpoint from her views on the issue. The article is misleading to the reader because it begins with her degrading Professor Singer with his standpoint on the killing of unborn disabled children. She does not agree with his view on this issue but by the end of the article, there is a mutual understanding between both her and Singer.

Overall, her intent was not to make the reader feel sympathy or guilt for her, but rather to enlighten the reader with her own perspective.


  1. Johnson, Harriet McBryde. “Unspeakable Conversations”. The New York Times. 16 Feb. 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2011
  2. “Rogerian Argumentation. ” Winthrop. n. d. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. .
  3. ‘Rogerian Argument. ” Wikipedia. 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. .
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