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.

PODCAST: Stories from the Students for Life Conference

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Tim, Rachel, and I sat down to share some of our favorite stories from the people we talked to at the 2018 Students for Life East Coast Conference. We walked away from that conference glowing, excitedly telling each other stories, because that was one of the most encouraging days we had experienced at ERI. We decided that you should have a chance to listen in on those stories, especially if you’re a financial supporter that made this work, and the amazing results we witnessed, possible.

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Five Lessons for Pro-Lifers from the Women’s March

Whether you are participating in legislative efforts, sidewalk advocacy, volunteering at a Pregnancy Resource Center, or leading a Students for Life group, you should be talking about your pro-life work. Pro-lifers need to talk more about what we are doing for the movement because building awareness is half the battle of grassroots mobilization efforts. Successful social change comes from recruiting those who agree and reaching out to those who disagree.

Let’s take a look at how pro-choice people discuss their activism. I am going to use the Women’s March of January 2017 as a case study for how we as pro-life advocates can improve our own messaging by examining the March’s approach and identifying what we can learn from it. The second Women’s March took place this year on January 20th, but, for the sake of simplicity, I am only going to reference the first march in this post. The march this year was less clear and consistent in its messaging, so it isn’t as useful a case study.

Women’s March in Washington in January, 2017.
Photo credit: Roya Ann Miller

When the Women’s March took place last year, it was discussed all over social media, news sites, and in our communities: the kind of buzz that every social protest hopes to create. People talked about why they were going, how they planned on getting there, and what their experience was like after they came back from either the national or local march. If activism sparks discussion, it is a sign that the activism achieved some level of success. These marches were not just public demonstrations which took place on one day and were over the next. The people participating talked about it openly before, during, and after with anyone that they could reach.

Here are my takeaways after closely studying the success and shortcomings of the pro-choice movement’s participation in the Women’s March:

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.