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.

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:

Will Smith’s Indefensible Moral Relativism

Will Smith was recently featured along with several other actors on one of The Hollywood Reporter’s (THR) hour-long roundtable discussions. Not only did Will Smith make a relativistic statement, but the interviewer asked precisely the right question to push back against his view! It’s worth taking a few minutes to analyze what Will Smith said because his view is unfortunately common and it’s helpful to take a close look at the views of those with whom we disagree.

About halfway through the discussion, one of the interviewers asked Will Smith about his recent movie, Concussion. The movie is based on the true story of a Nigerian forensic pathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu who spent years trying to get NFL leadership to take seriously his research on potentially lethal head injuries from playing football.

Will Smith on The Hollywood Reporter

Screenshot from The Hollywood Reporter video

Recognizing the Root Problem


A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of pro-life advocates being open to letting their conversation change topics. I gave the examples of religion and same-sex marriage and described how it might be more important for a given person to talk about one of those issues than to talk about abortion. Good dialogue requires the ability to listen well to the other person, as opposed to stubbornly sticking to your flowchart. [Tweet that!]

There’s another common reason that I change topics from abortion to something else: I discover that there is something more seriously wrong with their view than that they are pro-choice about abortion. Sometimes you can’t realistically make progress on abortion unless you deal with something else first.

Moral Relativism

Probably the most obvious example of a time to stop talking about abortion is if the person you’re talking to is not only pro-choice, they’re a moral relativist. If a person doesn’t think any action is morally wrong, even an obvious case like rape or child abuse, convincing them of the wrongness of killing a fetus is pretty hopeless. People tend to relate much better to victims of child abuse and survivors of rape much better than they relate to human fetuses. In order to consider defending fetuses they don’t emotionally connect to, they need to at least be able to see something like rape as evil.

Effectively Responding to Moral Relativism

This post was first published at Life Training Institute’s blog. The resource links at the end were updated in October, 2017.

While working last week with the Justice For All exhibit at Kennesaw State University, I got into a conversation with two students, Justin and Teesha, about moral relativism. There are few topics more difficult to discuss than moral relativism. This is partially because it’s a complicated topic already, but also because few people are open to changing their views on relativism. Even if a person is typically open-minded, the whole concept of relativism is that we can have differing views on a subject, yet we can both be right.

When I train students to respond to moral relativism, I tell them to start by asking a clarification question. Steve Wagner of JFA points out that there are two different types of relativism, so it’s best to ask, “do you believe morals are relative to individuals or cultures?”

If the person believes morals are relative to cultures, I’m going to ask, “then how can you judge the Nazi’s decision to slaughter the Jews?”

If the person believes morals are relative to individuals, I’m going to say, “then you can’t distinguish between a father who feeds his daughter and a father who molests his daughter, can you? They just have different preferences.”

I’m going to share with you an excerpt of my dialogue with Justin and his friend Teesha, in hopes that it will give you some “tools for your toolbox” to use the next time your friend says “morals are relative.”


Justin:   There is no such thing as objective truth.

Josh:    Is that a true statement?

Justin:   Well, it’s true for me.

Josh:    I understand that, but is it true for me too, or is it just true for you?

Justin:   I don’t know, but it’s definitely true for me. There are some things I believe are wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everybody.

Josh:    Okay, well do you think we could agree that there are some things that are objectively wrong? Like rape, for example. Wouldn’t it be wrong for someone to rape Teesha?

Justin:   Well, it would be wrong for me.

Josh:    I understand that, but when I say ‘rape is wrong,’ I mean that there is something inherently evil about the act of rape itself. It seems that when you say ‘rape is wrong,’ you’re simply stating a personal preference.

Justin:   Yes, it’s wrong for me, but who am I to judge someone else?

(I could tell by Teesha’s body language that she was slowly coming to grips with the natural consequences of Justin’s worldview, and it was making her a little uncomfortable, but she didn’t say anything yet.)

Josh:    What about child prostitution? It happens all around the world. Can’t we at least agree that that’s really messed up?

Justin:   Well, I personally don’t think that’s right…

Josh:    Yeah, but some people do. Some people think it’s okay to sell little girls’ bodies for sex with adult men. Isn’t that just wrong?

Justin:   Well, some people grow up with different parents and in a different culture than me. So I definitely wouldn’t do it, but who am I to judge another culture?

Josh:    I definitely agree people’s worldviews are partially shaped by their parents and culture, and that we should strive to think freely and clearly, and not just adopt whatever our parents taught us. (Justin nods approvingly.) But couldn’t an entire society be wrong about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of paying to have sex with 7-year-old girls?

Justin:   I think it’s wrong, but it might be right for them.

(Teesha interrupts that she disagrees with Justin. “Well I think that would be wrong!” she replied.)

Justin:   Something can be wrong to me, but that doesn’t make it wrong for someone else. Maybe it’s right to them. There is no objective right and wrong.

Josh:    Look, everybody used to think the earth was a flat disc on the back of a giant sea turtle. Were they right?

Justin:   It was right for them.

Josh:    Yes, but were we ever actually on the back of a giant sea turtle?

Justin:   *pauses / stammers*

Josh:    Do you understand the Law of Non-Contradiction? It is not possible that something be both true and not true at the same time and in the same context.

Justin:   But there is no truth!

Josh:    See that?! You just made a truth statement, that there is no truth! I don’t even have to refute that. Your argument is refuting itself! It committed suicide. It was Dead On Arrival.

Teesha laughed, and we moved on to another topic, and went our separate ways a half hour later.

Why was I able to be so quick on my feet in that dialogue? Because I had already prepared for that kind of conversation. I read books like “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air” by Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl. I listened to CD’s over and over on this topic, so I could master the material for myself. A lot of my responses were not even original! But they were tools in my toolbox, ready to be taken out when the opportunity came up.

I also chose to describe some of the most despicable acts I could think of. (I purposely left out the more graphic descriptions in this article, but suffice to say, I left little to the imagination.) I did this because it’s one thing to stand on a college campus and say there is no objective right and wrong, but it’s another thing to hear what it’s like for a 7-year-old to be forced to have sex with an adult man. There’s a reason we have a negative gut instinct when hearing things like that. It’s the kind of thing bioethicist Leon Kass refers to as “the wisdom of repugnance.”

So start preparing yourself for conversations like this! One way to do that is to subscribe to this blog or subscribe to our podcast, or even better, purchase our systematic course on pro-life apologetics, Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion. Then you can be ready the next time someone tells you, “fetuses aren’t persons,” or “I’m personally pro-life but I wouldn’t tell someone else what to do with their body,” or even, “There is no truth. Morals are relative.”

Whatever you do, find a way to get involved. Moral relativism is one of the most destructive worldviews of the century. It’s become so popular that it’s even creeping into our churches unnoticed. It’s important that pro-lifers are able to combat it respectfully but effectively.