What’s Wrong with Saying “Fetus”

Discrimination? Microaggression? Propaganda? These are common labels against pro-lifers. Anyone arguing for the rights of the unborn can expect to be characterized as enemies of women, of liberty, and of human rights. Sometimes we can learn from these accusations and pick better terms or listen with more charity. Other times, these labels just don’t fit. Or worse, they are baseless slander.

I would like to suggest that the abortion debate is riddled with a problematic term: “fetus.” At best, this term is a harmless shorthand way to refer to a “human fetus,” “fetal human,” or the “child-in-utero,” and other non-discriminatory terms. At worst, and it’s often used this way, it’s a misleading rhetorical move designed to instill dehumanizing prejudice against the unborn. Either way, we can do better.

Some may call the term “fetus” a “microaggression,” although I’m not a big fan of that concept.[1] My grievance with this term is that it’s typically a subtle but deliberate spin in verbiage intended to relocate the discussion away from any possible implication of human rights. The net effect of that rhetoric, if left unchecked, is a dehumanizing prejudgment about the status of the unborn, as if this “fetus” isn’t really a human being. This use of terms can even be a kind of discrimination. It isn’t discrimination in the sense of breaking a law or violating someone’s civil rights. But it does qualify as verbal discrimination because it is dehumanizing and prejudicial language.

Nevertheless, despite my complaints, I don’t think this term is a huge deal. I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do run into this issue often enough that I have to say something about it.

Pay Attention to Who Should NOT Be in a Given Conversation

If you are a part of a dialogue-oriented outreach, you should be paying attention to who should be in a given conversation, and who should not be.

Josh Brahm (middle) has a conversation with students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don't have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

Josh Brahm (middle) talks to students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don’t have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

It was our second day of outreach at Davidson College and after having had several conversations, a lull swept over our area of campus while all of the students were in class. I went behind our poll table setup to take a short break with ERI staff member Rachel Crawford who was also sitting back there. We were talking about the dialogues we’d had that day. Two other male volunteers stood behind Rachel talking with us.

While we were talking, a young woman whom I will call “Alice” walked straight up to us to ask us what the point of our outreach was. I responded that we’re trying to help pro-life and pro-choice people to have better conversations with each other, to hear each other, to learn from each other, and hopefully help people get closer to finding truth on the subject. I then asked her, “What do you think about abortion?”

She confidently responded with a statement about being pro-choice, but instead of offering the logical reasons why she believes that, she started describing the abortion experience she had had only five months before. She also shared with us some very personal information about how she didn’t feel like her boyfriend was supportive of her through the process and how she didn’t talk to her friends about it either. She also shared that her parents had abandoned her as a child and that she had been raised by her grandma. She felt very alone in this situation and ultimately one of the staff members of the campus health center had to be the one to drive her to and from the abortion facility. The campus even gave her a loan to pay for the abortion, which she worked through the summer to pay off.

Circumventing Philosophy Hell

Keeping Your Conversations about Abortion Productive

Imagine you’re out hiking with a friend in the beautiful (and fictional) country of Florin, as depicted in The Princess Bride. You’re both clueless tourists but you’ve casually looked at some maps and you think you can handle yourselves. As you’re walking by a ravine, your friend points to a group of trees and says, “Hey, I think if we wander down the ravine and into those trees, we’ll save some time!” You agree, but start to get worried as you notice that what started out as a beautiful forest has turned into a terrifying swamp. Ten minutes later, you are both killed by Rodents of Unusual Size.

Now imagine an alternative scenario. Unlike your tourist friend, you’re a native to Florin, so you know about the parts of the country to avoid, such as the Fire Swamp. When your clueless friend suggests wandering into a dangerous area, you casually redirect him, and you both survive.

A conversation about abortion is surprisingly similar. There are plenty of useful topics to discuss, and plenty of tangents that, while they won’t cause you to get eaten, are really not a good use of time.

Some unhelpful tangents come up regularly because they’re fairly natural responses to some of the arguments I regularly use, and I have learned from experience that some of them should just always be avoided. This post is about a simple but effective way to avoid one in particular.

I am very fond of thought-experiments. I find so much success with them that most of my arguments wind up being backed up by some thought-experiment or another. For instance, if I’m arguing for the personhood of the unborn, I regularly offer the Zoo Shooting:

Don’t Dialogue Like Hamilton OR Aaron Burr

Hamilton

The character of Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical stands in stark contrast to the title character. Alexander Hamilton is brash, aggressive, tactless, and always reaches for what he wants, while Aaron Burr is polite, careful, and hesitant. When he initially meets Hamilton, Burr encourages him to:

Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.

Sadly, this line reminds me all too well of some well-meaning pro-life people.

Think of it in terms of a dialogue spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, pro-life people dialogue far too aggressively and tactlessly, and, because of that, they don’t usually persuade pro-choice people. Let’s call this “The Hamilton Approach.”

Many agreeable pro-life people wind up on the other end of the spectrum. They say little of consequence in their conversations, they don’t challenge people, and they just focus on being really friendly. Let’s call this “The Aaron Burr Approach.”

The problem is that the people who take the Aaron Burr Approach don’t accomplish much either. Sure, they’re less irritating than people who take the Hamilton Approach, but they don’t persuade anyone of anything because they’re too meek and cautious.

Building Rapport with a Benevolent Dictator

Employ this dialogue tactic to build rapport with a pro-choice person and increase the likelihood that your conversation about abortion will be successful.

Many conversations about abortion succeed or fail because of your rapport, or lack thereof, with the pro-choice person. Even a perfectly articulated pro-life argument will just glance off of a combative pro-choice mind, so people who are skilled at dialogue use wisdom to build rapport and make the tone of the conversation friendly.

This post is about something that I regularly do to build rapport. It may sound implausible that something so simple works so unbelievably well, but I’ve done this dozens of times, and it usually makes a huge difference in my conversations.

Building Rapport with a Benevolent Dictator

Instead of simply asking, “Do you think this or that should be legal?” I’ll say something like:

Let’s transport ourselves to an alternate dimension. We no longer live in the United States of America, we now live in the Benevolent Dictatorship of Joe [insert their first name here]. Joe makes all the rules. Doesn’t that sound nice?