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.

I don’t mean to gripe, but…

Whenever I get into 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 their host.

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.”

With a range of accurate and responsible terms to choose from, we have better options besides the word “fetus.”

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. When I find a person consistently using the term “fetus,” I sometimes ask them: “I noticed you favor the term ‘fetus.’ Are we both talking about a human fetus, or are you including horse fetuses, and cow fetuses, and so on?” As a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend quibbling over terms when you are in one-on-one conversations. The aim shouldn’t be a debate about word usage – your one-on-one time is too short for those side-trails. But, often, the other person’s word choices reveal a deeper underlying confusion. And confusing mistaken ideas can ruin the whole conversation. Asking whether they are including other kinds of fetal life helps me feel out whether they have ever thought about the biological humanity of that fetus. I’m not looking for some big admission about human rights or fetal personhood. I’m just trying to get a sense of whether they realize that it is a fetal human in the mother’s womb. If someone doesn’t want to admit what kind of fetus is being killed in abortion, then perhaps he or she isn’t really owning up to the consequences of their pro-choice position. If the pro-choice person seems receptive to this concern about neglecting the “human” part in “human fetus,” then you may be able to ask them if they would be okay with a term that applies for every stage of development such as “unborn,” “child-in-utero,” or even “human being.”

Second, the term “fetus” is ambiguous. It refers to a range of developmental stages 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 think consciousness is a legitimate dividing line. The term “fetus” doesn’t distinguish between potentially critical dividing lines where pro-lifers and and some pro-choice people can agree, for example, on restricting or banning late-term abortion.

Third, it’s inaccurate for all unborn children prior to about weeks 8-10 after conception. Biological texts and medical manuals recognize earlier stages before the unborn is a “fetus.” At day one, when the unborn is still a single-cell conceptus, “zygote” is the proper term. From day 2 through week 8, the organism is called an “embryo.” Only around week 9 is the child-in-utero properly called a “fetus.” In this way, the term “fetus” can be misleading since the unborn isn’t a fetus until after going through the zygote and embryo stages (day 2 – week 8; 2+ cells).

Fourth, it risks verbal discrimination in the sense of dehumanizing the unborn. Here is the biggest liability when pro-life people use “fetus” as their default term for the unborn. To understand this problem, it should be noted that discrimination can be any unjustified or inaccurate prejudgment (prejudice). That includes verbal discrimination. Also, discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional to be real. Bear in mind that the problem is not about the occasional isolated use of the term “fetus.” The underlying problem is that pro-choice language almost universally deletes any mention of the word “human” when referring to the unborn. This tactic effectively instills a prejudicial bias against discussing their human status. This prejudice qualifies this dehumanizing terminology as verbal discrimination. Quite likely, this effort by pro-choice advocates is to reduce the risk that people might identify biological humans with personhood and with human rights. So, it makes sense strategically for abortion-choice advocates to shy away from the term “human.” But, when that strategy goes beyond rational disputes over legal terms and starts suppressing the biological humanity of the unborn, then it becomes dishonest.

Remember that in abortion-choice language there is already an established pattern of not just deleting the term “human,” but also inserting additional dehumanizing terms such as “parasite,” “clump of cells,” or “wad of tissue.” This two-fold pattern of dehumanization establishes a context wherein the term “fetus” conforms conspicuously, helping to subtly redefine the unborn. Chronically referring to fetal humans as mere “fetuses” can suppress the fact of their humanity. Deleting most every mention of “human” in regards to biological humans is literally dehumanization.

One way to handle this point about dehumanization is to ask the pro-choice person, “Would you feel comfortable with the term ‘fetal human’?” If they are not comfortable with that term, you might be able to ask, “Why are you uncomfortable with it?” The point is not to quibble over word choice, but to explore whether this person’s pro-choice beliefs are based on a deep confusion about the status of the unborn.

Fifth, it risks verbal discrimination by adding insult to injury. It may be helpful to illustrate this manner of discrimination by pointing to a historical case where, most everyone would admit, there is a real and standing grievance. Imagine that some unnamed politician were to regularly refer to black people/persons/human beings only as “the blacks.” If someone uses this phrasing once or twice, or in a specialized context such as reviewing election polls, it would be no big deal. But, when that terminology is a uniform pattern across all their references to black people, then it begins to carry a sense of discrimination when viewed in light of the historical harms inflicted on black people in the United States.

Regarding fetal humans, the terminology of “fetus” has a dehumanizing force because it describes a marginalized group without mentioning their humanity. At roughly 60 million abortions since 1973, fetal humans certain qualify as a marginalized group, so this dehumanization qualifies as verbal discrimination.

***

If we are going to be consistent in our compassion, we would do well to remember that dehumanization is a common bias in the abortion debate, and that even popular and common terminology can imply, suggest, or infuse a discriminatory tone to our language. We can do better than that. We can refer to children-in-utero without glibly agreeing to avoid mentioning 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 to 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).

Editor’s Note: Though the whole ERI team is sympathetic to John’s arguments, ERI has existed for years with different practices, so of course our material up to this point has used the word “fetus” fairly loosely. We don’t intend to edit previous blog posts to bring them in line with John’s view, but newer blog posts will be influenced by this post.

This post is adapted from a previous version John published at his web site.

Embryology image used with permission by Life Issues Institute, Inc.

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The post “What’s Wrong with Saying ‘Fetus’” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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John Ferrer is a Teaching Fellow with Equal Rights Institute.

Currently residing in Pella, Iowa with his wife Hillary, John earned an MDiv in Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary as well as a ThM and PhD in Philosophy of Religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

John is a life-long educator and minister having worked at the college, high school, and church levels. He also volunteers his time with Pella Pro-Life and the local Students for Life chapter at Central College.

Besides pro-life training, John also writes and lectures on bioethics, philosophy, theology, and Christian apologetics. John foresees himself teaching and writing for many years and has prioritized these efforts so that he has taught at about a dozen schools spanning six countries.

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