Senior Ella Hayes stands by the large window in the Jepson Faculty Lounge.

The power of speech

March 21, 2024

If someone tells you not to think of an elephant, what do you think of? An elephant, of course. Ella Hayes said she confronted this rhetorical oxymoron in an introductory class on public policy during her first year at University of Richmond.

“Thinking about it kept me up at night,” said the leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law major. “It burrowed its way into my brain, and I haven’t been able to get it out.”

Now as a senior, she is exploring rhetoric — specifically the abortion rhetoric used in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — through her Jepson School of Leadership Studies honors thesis research. Leadership studies professor and sociologist Bo Yun Park is serving as her faculty mentor.

“I hypothesized that conservatives were more likely to use the fetal personhood framework — rhetoric that defines an unborn fetus as a person with full personhood rights,” Hayes said, "and Democrats were more likely to use the liberty framework — rhetoric that emphasizes a woman’s right to choose and bodily autonomy.”

To test her hypothesis, she uploaded transcripts from all 33 of the 2016 presidential campaign debates to a software program that allows her to identify and code different rhetorical frameworks.

“Rhetoric along party lines is fairly consistent,” Hayes said. “But the abortion conversation has shifted radically in the last eight years, especially since the overturn of Roe v. Wade almost two years ago. Now conservatives often use feminist language to push for pro-life policies. They talk about how the mental effects of abortion are bad for women, and therefore, we should outlaw abortion.

“Politicians, particularly conservative politicians, are good at invoking and reinforcing mental frameworks. When Democrats try to use Republican language because it polls well, they end up reinforcing conservative frameworks and pushing people further right.” It goes back, she said, to the example of people thinking about the elephant when they are told not to.

In fall 2022, Dr. Lauranett Lee’s Sex, Power and Politics class sparked her interest in abortion rhetoric and gave her the foundation to pursue her honors thesis. “It was just after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion,” she said. “We talked about Roe v. Wade and the history of abortion in the U.S.

“Ethical Decision Making in Health Care with Dr. Jessica Flanigan has also been valuable. Applying a philosophical lens has practical ramifications for health care policy.”

Most of her personal experience with the health care system has come from seeking physical therapy treatment for injuries suffered as a Richmond Field Hockey midfielder, she said. So, it was with great interest that, during her Jepson internship with the Virginia Department of Health Professions last summer, she studied a case involving the revocation of a physical therapist’s license.

“People may follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it,” the scholar-athlete said of the case. “So, we have to make distinctions in legal definitions, because minute details have real ramifications for patient care.”

Hayes plans to pursue a master’s degree to continue her research on the effect of rhetoric on health care policy.

“The research process is so much fun! It is so cool to experience this kind of discovery on my own, rather than just reading about the discoveries other people make.”