Fetus? Well, not this time

It always amazes me how many religious concepts and themes have become embedded in our nation’s ongoing debates about abortion. Truth is, it’s impossible for the mainstream media to avoid these religious entanglements because they have soaked into the language used in these events, debates, laws and court cases.

Consider, for example, arguments about the language that journalists use to describe unborn children.

Some journalists insist that the proper term is always “fetus,” because this is the scientific and, thus, neutral and objective term. Thus, it is the journalistic word to use.

My venerable copy of the Associated Press Stylebook does not take a stand on this issue. However I have heard journalists say that their own newsrooms had written “fetus” into their local style manual.

In addition to “fetus” being scientific, many journalists have argued that it is impossible to use terms such as “unborn child” or even “baby” because these words assume a specific stance on an issue that is rooted in religious doctrine — the question of “ensoulment.” In other words, it is an act of faith — not science — to say when a child becomes fully human. Yet, note that religious faith is involved the second that people involved in this debate begin discussing the human soul. Period.

The reason that I am mentioning this is because, in the past year or so, I noticed that more journalists are loosening up on some of these issues and starting to use the language that actual human beings use when discussing these issues. At the very least, journalists are starting to mix these terms in their copy. Consider this New York Times lede:

For years, surgeons have been trying to find ways of operating on babies in the womb, reasoning that medical abnormalities might be more easily fixed while a fetus is still developing. But with tremendous risks to babies and mothers, and a mixed record of success, fetal surgery is mostly used when babies are likely to die otherwise.

Yes, you read that right — one “fetus” reference and three references to “babies.”

Now we have the potentially tragic case in Colorado of a pharmacist’s mistake that may result in the tragic end of a pregnancy. Here is the Associated Press lede, as used by National Public Radio:

A pregnant Colorado woman mistakenly given an abortion drug by a pharmacist faces an excruciating wait to find out the fate of her unborn child.

A Denver television station posted this variation online:

FT. LUPTON, Colo. – She is six weeks pregnant and when she went to the pharmacy to pick up an antibiotic her doctor had prescribed, the pharmacist gave her an abortion drug by mistake. Mareena Silva might lose her unborn child because of the prescription drug error. … .

“For all this to happen now is really overwhelming,” said Silva. “This is my first child, so it’s really difficult to deal with.” …

Doctors are checking Silva’s bloodwork to make sure her hormone levels are OK. She could miscarry, carry the child to full-term with severe birth defects or she could have a happy, healthy baby.

You can see the basic problem. When talking about these issues, “fetus” is the kind of term that is used by lawyers, legislators and scientists (usually on one side of the abortion debate). Meanwhile, ordinary people tend to say “child,” “unborn child” or even “baby.” What is a journalist supposed to do? No matter what newsrooms decide, one side or the other is going to be ticked off.

Readers, what are you seeing in your local media? A consistent use of one term or this new mix of the scientific and, well, the language of the people? What do you think should be in the Associated Press Stylebook, if anything?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • mer

    My biggest issue with this coverage is the drug itself. It’s a chemotherapy drug that sometimes causes miscarriages, sometimes birth defects, both of which are awful. It has rarely, if ever, been used as an abortifacient. The coverage has been misleading at best.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Well, then that is an issue for another blog. Carry on.

  • Jerry

    The NY Times story is interesting. Typically fetus is either in the clinical sense or used to indicate that the embryo is not human yet and baby is used to indicate a human, before or after birth. To use both in the same article as the Times did is I think pretty unusual. I’d like to ask the reporter why the story was written that way.

  • mae

    Perhaps they are being consistent with the (pro-choice?) position that the will of the mother determines the personhood of the fetus. In the examples above, the mothers wanted to have children, so “child” it is.

    In a story about a pregnant woman trying to avoid becoming a mother, I suspect we would find only references to “the fetus” (if it is referred to at all).

    Not only does a pregnant woman determine the ontological status of the fetus—she even changes the stylebook!

  • Dave G.

    Perhaps they are being consistent with the (pro-choice?) position that the will of the mother determines the personhood of the fetus.

    That probably explains what I’ve seen. Somewhat chilling when phrased that way, but it could explain the differences.

  • deb

    Very interesting post. I would like to know what terms religious leaders use based on their beliefs. Maybe the tendency to use the term “fetus” rests primarily on the fact that the scientific community has come up with an agreed upon term to use, while religious ideologies have yet to do so.

    Also, I just looked this up and fetus comes from the Latin word meaning “offspring” or “hatching of young”. So I guess saying fetus is the same as saying unborn child…right????

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    The scientific community does not use the term fetus. My wife and I have had 6 children and 3 miscarriages. We have seen many, many medical people for prenatal tests. They always call it a baby. It is pretty hard not to. You do an ultrasound and you can see him or her. Are you going to keep calling it fetal tissue right in front of mom and dad?

    So I don’t think biological science is the motivation at all. It is more social science. They want to sound less judgmental. They don’t realize they have taken a religious position when they do this. They think it is somehow neutral but it fact it explicitly rejects the dignity of the human person. It is really quite an extreme religious position that they trumpet but they just don’t know it.

  • Lily

    Re: Readers, what are you seeing in your local media?

    What Mae said.

    Re: What do you think should be in the Associated Press Stylebook, if anything?

    Wish there was one word that would clearly designate that this is a human being not an it. We used to understand that fetus was a medical term to describe a baby growing in the womb. Has the word been hijacked by pro-choice to change it’s usage?

  • Donna

    >So I guess saying fetus is the same as saying unborn child…>right????

    Yes, “fetus” means “young one ” in Latin, and is, in meaning, basically the same as “unborn child”. However, since it is not an everyday word, the emotional impact of what is being said is muted.
    Compare and contrast:
    1. “My experiment involves severe restriction of the airway of a juvenile ‘Canis familiaris’ ”
    2. “My experiment involves choking a puppy. ”

    They are both saying the same thing, but the second packs a more immediate punch, and more people will immediately react with disgust.

  • Mandy

    Great post. I’ve noticed journalists use the term unborn child if the baby is indicated as being wanted. But, as doctors push back the week at which a baby is viable (23 weekers are making it now a days) it will be interesting to monitor the language used. And hopefully this change in terminology will extend to other pregnancy & pregnancy loss related terms (both miscarriage and still birth take humanity away from the loss of a child).

  • Mitch

    Haven’t had time to read the comments, but it seems to me that journalists will use unborn child etc when they seek sympathy for the reader! Elaborate this thought for yourself…I’m at work ;)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    We have seen many, many medical people for prenatal tests. They always call it a baby.

    As Mae said, the terminology tends to get tailored to the audience. A welcome pregnancy elicits ‘baby’. Even when it’s welcome… our first pregnancy was badly threatened, and very early on. The word ‘fetus’ was used on occasion, perhaps as cushioning when miscarriage seemed so likely.

    They don’t realize they have taken a religious position when they do this. They think it is somehow neutral but it fact it explicitly rejects the dignity of the human person. It is really quite an extreme religious position that they trumpet but they just don’t know it.

    Well, it’s a position on a topic that many religions have a position on… but does that automatically make it a religious position? (We’re talking about the definition of religion in the ; it’s probably not a topic for this forum.)

  • http://www.priestsforlife.org Leslie Palma

    It seems to me that “fetus” is used when a reporter is discussing a pregnancy that was unwanted, and baby or unborn child the rest of the time. For the human being in the womb, intention is everything.

  • http://www.priestsforlife.org Leslie Palma

    On a related note, those of us on the pro-life side of things often wonder why we are “anti-abortion” and those on the other side of the bubble zone are “abortion rights advocates.” Where’s the parity there? If we are anti-abortion, shouldn’t that make them pro-abortion? Or if they are abortion rights advocates, shouldnt’t we be abortion rights opponents? Unwieldy, I’ll agree, but on par.


    Does not matter what you call it. You can call the child “Meatloaf” if you please. It will not change the fact that after the abortion, the kid will be dead and you:

    A murderess.

    Or a “lifetaker”. Or a “deathmaker”. Or a “post-abortive woman” if you will.
    Call yourself whatever you want.

    If you breakt the 6th commandment, why not the 9th while you are at it?

  • Chris

    Did the journalist in these cases use the term “baby”, “unborn child”, etc. because in these cases the mother “wanted” the child? I see that Leslie beat me to it, and I agree with her.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Look at Gnews show (using one of its relates stories search features) only a very few story versions using “fetus” with something like four times as many using “baby” (and of course many of those stories use both). I get the impression (looking at one usage which is delivered as a quotation) that “fetus’ is most often used in conjunction with stating that the drug has this effect, tending to imply that the word is connected with a medicalized viewpoint.

  • Duane

    Today’s Washington Post had two stories – on the spina bifida surgery and on proposed budget cuts. Both consistently used the word baby -

    Surgery can help babies with spina bifida
    By Rob Stein, Page A02
    Performing surgery on babies with the most severe form of spina bifida when they are still in the womb doubles the chance that they will be able to walk, according to a federally funded study released Wednesday.

    House GOP points budget knife at EPA, top Obama priorities
    By Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray, Page A06
    House Republicans sketched their vision for a smaller federal government Wednesday, proposing sharp spending cuts that would wipe out family-planning programs, take 4,500 police officers off the street, and slice 10 percent from a food program that aids pregnant women and their babies.

  • MarkAA

    What I observed during my years as an editor in four daily newsrooms is that most reporters and copy editors who spoke openly of the matter were virulently pro-choice. They tended to be fierce on the matter. “Fetus” was the “official” term that had to be there to get the story past the copy editors, especially a far-left chief copy editor(s). “Baby” or “Unborn child” typically was used by reporters — especially ones who were openly pro-life — but those terms almost always were changed to “Fetus” by the pro-choice copy editors. When the planets aligned, usually on a weekend, and the cadre of pro-choice copy editors weren’t in the newsroom, their backups might be pro-life or at least not against using “unborn child” and allow a story written by a pro-life reporter to get through with something more human than “fetus”. There usually were grumbles about this on Monday, regarding what the “style” was.

    Yes, even in Flyover Country, the terminology of the abortion war has been battled over in this quiet way for decades. Ideology reigns, based on who is in the seats doing the writing and editing. Or, at least it used to when there were such things as copy desks.

  • http://fallibilismandfaith.blogspot.com/ JD

    Meanwhile, ordinary people tend to say “child,” “unborn child” or even “baby.”

    Ok, “child” and “baby” may be natural, if used within reason (i.e. not applied to the contents of a testtube).

    But “unborn (child)” – that’s a stilted, ideologically driven backformation, nothing natural about it.

    Look at the n-gram here. Usage trends steeply upwards at just the time you would it expect it to if it were a function of abortion war messaging.

  • Duane

    Letter in this morning’s Wash Post:

    ‘Babies,’ only once they’re born

    Friday, February 11, 2011; 7:26 PM

    The Feb. 10 article “Surgery can help babies with spina bifida” misused the word “baby” or “babies” to refer to a fetus in the womb at least five times, including the headline.

    Since the article hardly ever used the correct noun “fetus,” I wondered whether this was a deliberate editorial decision.

    In trying to redefine fetuses as babies, The Post strayed into politically charged territory rather than simply reporting the facts.

    Such views should be reserved for the opinion section of the paper.