NYU legal professor Dr. Melissa Murray presents history of reproductive rights in UD assembly


Barry Mason/School Photographer

Sophie Rukin, Staff Writer

Dr. Melissa Murray, reproductive rights and justice law expert, spoke at this Tuesday’s Upper Division (UD) assembly about the history of reproductive justice in the United States. The assembly was this school year’s second installation of the History Department Speaker Series.

The department decided to invite Murray because she is an expert in the subject and an engaging speaker, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. Like the first Speaker Series, they met with advisors on March 1 to instruct them on how to prepare students for the assembly. 

The department selected two readings for every advisory to discuss: an excerpt from Murray’s testimony before Congress for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing and a news article from The New York Times after Dobbs v. Jackson was overturned. “The goal is for students to have basic knowledge of what the speaker will talk about in advance so that they are not going in cold,” Morales said.

They also provided advisors with a guide for holding the discussion. It specified, “this conversation is not about your or your advisees’ feelings about abortion in America. This is meant to be analytical work.” 

The topic of abortion can be equally hard to discuss for teachers as it is for students, Link said. “It is good for students to remember that advisors are human beings too, and they come into this with their own life experiences,” he said. “We see our job as being instructive as teachers and advisors, rather than as debate coaches.”

The conversation topics and guidance were helpful in directing the advisory discussion, math teacher Charles Worrall said. Knowing that he did not have to be the expert in the room was also helpful, he said.  If students asked questions, he could direct them to the readings.

Having an opinion-free discussion was a good decision, Reproductive Justice Coalition President Louise Kim (12) said. Advisories are composed of diverse groups of students who do not often have these types of political discussions, and may not be prepared to do so, they said. “Especially when you first approach an issue, I think it’s important to see it for what it is and then maybe an additional layer afterward, delving into the nuance and personal opinions.”

Other students disagreed. The lack of in-depth analytical conversation made the advisory prep less useful, Naomi Yaeger (11) said. “My advisory kinda saw it like a joke, and barely talked about the articles.”

On Tuesday, Murray took the stage after an introduction by Mumbi Johnson (12). Murray led the audience through the legal history of abortion, from Postmaster General Anthony Comstock lobbying for anti-vice laws in 1873 to the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. By keeping it modern with slang like “sus” and sarcastic references such as calling Ronald Raegan a “liberal squish,” Murray captivated the audience and even garnered some laughs.

The assembly resonated with many students, Kim said. She was struck by Murray’s explanation of the political timeline of abortion rights, explaining how it was actually Republicans, rather than the Democrats, who championed the pro-choice movement in the past. “A lot of the forces in the political world that we see right now are more artificial or strategic than I had previously thought.”

With her approachable speaking style, Murray painted a detailed image of what the political climate surrounding abortion looked like in the past decades, Miller Harris (12) said. Her examples of lobbying groups and rights organizations were really interesting, he said. “As a STEM student, I am not crazily familiar with legal history, and Murray’s assembly made me think more deeply about topics I wouldn’t see in my average school day.”

It was evident Murray had an impact on students as they arrived at the D-period talkback session with tons of questions, Morales said. “You could tell the students were curious and grappling with the large questions Murray asked,” she said. Morales hopes students think about what it means for nine justices to be the ultimate arbiters of major political and social issues.

“Now, we’re left with a question of whether politics and law are separate. The court has always insisted that it is outside of politics. The question I hope we’ll think about more seriously today is, is that true? Has it ever been true? And can it ever be true going forward?”

– Dr. Melissa Murray

Sam Siegel/Photo Director

Student reactions to Murray’s assembly:

I learned that it’s not just about the freedom to abort, it’s also about the freedom that you should have over your body: whether you want to keep the baby or not.”

– Evie Steinman (9)

“One thing that bothered me about the advisory preparation was that many advisors (including my own) said that ‘everything in the Murray article was facts’ and not an Op-Ed. Treating opinions as facts and giving students only one side of the argument prevents intellectually engaging discussion and is quite similar to indoctrination.”

– Braden Queen (12)

“I left the talkback wondering how much of an impact my generation can have. While

I understood her point that we should act preemptively, I wondered what she thought the best way to use our voices is besides voting.”

– Isabella Ciriello (11)

“I joked ‘brb, going to NYU law school’ after the assem- bly, but I don’t think it’s as much of a joke anymore… she really sold me on it.”

– Emily Wang (10)