What’s wrong with saying “Fetus”?

Often I find myself grieved over something that many of us don’t even notice.  Some may call it a “microaggression” although I’m not a big fan of that term.[1] The grievance is over a subtle but deliberate discrimination. Now, it’s not a huge deal, so I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do notice it. My grievance is over the way we refer to fetal humans as merely a “fetus.”

I don’t mean to gripe, but…

When I get in conversations with people about abortion, eventually we reach for a word to describe what is being killed in an abortion. I try to avoid “trigger” words like “baby,” and “person” – those terms invite more contention than is necessary to get the point across. But I do not surrender to just any verbiage, from the pro-choice side, such as “clump of cells,” “or parasite,” or “tissue.” I  have a duty to truth, and so, it would not be accurate to describe an organism as if it’s an undifferentiated mass, like a tumor; or act as if the fetal human is a parasite, when, in reality, parasites are a different species from the parent.

Whenever I can, I favor expressions that are technically precise, having scientific or legal support. In a subject as heated and disputed as abortion, it’s important to use clear words wherever we can. For example:

  • “fetal human” or “human fetus” – the biological kind plus the stage of development
  • “homo sapiens” – the genus and species
  • “child-in-utero” – the legal title established in the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004).
  • “him” or “her” – the biological sex-specification of the fetal human; instead of just saying “it” or “that.”

However, there is one term that I try to avoid even though it’s probably the most common term for the child-in-utero. The word is “fetus.” Sometimes people use the word because it’s a better term than most; and that’s a good reason. For example, Equal Rights Institutes and other anti-abortion organizations often use the term because it can aid communication with abortion-choice advocates, who often favor terms that don’t mention the “human” in “(human) fetus.” However, my concern is that the term is often a subtle form of discrimination. The word “fetus” is inadequate for several reasons.

Problems with the word “Fetus”

First, “fetus” is just a stage of development and does not say what kind of thing is at that stage of development. We can rightly ask, “what kind of fetus?” There are horse fetuses, and cow fetuses, and cat fetuses. Refusing to identify what kind of thing is at issue in the abortion debate can work very differently if we are jumping to different species. If someone doesn’t want to admit what kind of fetus is being killed, then perhaps he or she isn’t really owning up to the consequences of their pro-choice position.

Second, the term fetus is ambiguous. It refers to a range of different levels of development, ambiguating between early, middle, and late stage fetal humans when, for abortion-choice advocates, the degree of development is critically important. Many abortion-choice advocates oppose middle or late stage abortion because they understand fetal-pain to be a legitimate dividing line, or they understand consciousness as being a legitimate dividing line. By pulling the “humanity” out of the term and just saying “fetus” we are losing the potentially clarifying quality of “humanity” leaving only the ambiguous “fetal” status to inform our conversation and concepts.

Third, it’s medically wrong for all unborn children prior to about weeks 8-10 after conception. The “fetal human” isn’t exactly a fetus until it’s gone through the zygote, blastocyst, and then embryo stages. Now, this biological terminology doesn’t change the fact that it’s customary to treat fetal humans like non-humans, and referring to them just as “fetus” regardless. But customs can be wrong, misleading, and even discriminatory. I think we can find a better custom to follow.

Fourth, it’s discriminatory dehumanization. Chronically referring to fetal humans, as mere “fetuses” runs the risk of suppressing the fact of their humanity.  That’s literal dehumanization. It would be like referring to black humans beings only as “the blacks.”

***

If we are going to be consistent in our compassion, we do well to remember that dehumanization is a common bias in the abortion debate, and that even popular and common discrimination is still discrimination. We can do better than that. We can refer to children-in-utero without suppressing their humanity.

Endnotes

[1] The term “microaggression” may imply that words are a form of violence. In this way, speech can be burdened with additional legal weight, restricting free speech only to popular, agreeable, and non-controversial matters. I’m not interested in weighing heavily into that debate right now, but I’d suggest that even the words and ideas you and I find offensive aren’t necessarily “violent” (i.e., microaggressions or even macroaggressions) unless they constitute a literal, physical, threat on people such as lying under oath, inciting a riot, treason and sedition, criminal libel, extortion, and so on. For a good summary of the legal landscape of free speech, especially on college campuses, see, Greg Lukianoff and William Creeley, eds. Fire’s  Guide to Free Speech on Campus, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2012)

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