Pod people: Define ‘fetus’ and give three examples

The first question I faced, in this week’s “Crossroads” interview, sounded relatively simple: Why did journalists struggle to use the word “fetus” accurately when covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell?

Like or not, I have had to pay a lot of attention to this issue in recent weeks. For those who have been off the planet during that time, click here for a recent look at The New York Times and its evolution on this topic.

But in this podcast, we went back to the beginning and tried to follow the logic of these arguments all the way through to the end.

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

So what happens when you have a story in which two different groups of people — in direct and paraphrased quotations — using these two radically different forms of language? There is tension, to say the least.

I have seen stories in which it was clear that reporters, or editors, went out of their way to avoid direct quotes that included “baby” and “unborn child” language. The result? Paraphrased quotes that literally put fetus language into the mouths of people who didn’t use it.

And what is happening now?

Let me stress that these earlier disputes focused on coverage of stories about babies who had not been born. In a technical sense, the word ‘fetus’ was awkward, but accurate. Remember that definition?

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es
… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Now, we are in a new era.

There continue to be people who insist on using “fetus” language whenever possible. The defenders of Gosnell, in the trial, insisted that he had never done what his staff insisted he had done — deliver intact, sometimes alive infants, and then snip their necks with scissors.

Thus, his defenders said they were talking about “fetuses,” not newborns.

The witnesses, and scientific experts for the prosecution, presented testimony and evidence that a few children were born alive and then killed — leading to the three final murder verdicts.

This side used “baby,” “infant,” “newborn” and “unborn child” language.

For weeks, some papers printed statements claiming that Gosnell was accused of killing fetuses, thus missing the whole point of the story.

Why did reporters and editors do that?

I don’t know. But this is not a new issue, folks. Does anyone remember when there were newspaper editors who refused to print the actual NAME of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act? Even when covering debates and votes in Congress?

Enjoy the podcast.

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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.

  • wlinden

    The Paper of Record not only refused to print the short title of PABA, but refused to say WHAT the “entire class of abortions” it banned was in its coverage of the House vote.

  • Thinkling

    Just a podcast comment: I have noticed the recent ones are about double the length they used to be. This is good news.

  • Jeremiah Oehlerich

    This discussion could get a lot messier in the future. Saw this story on CNN and immediately saw the fetus/baby language dichotomy at play, especially with murder charges in play.

    Woman: I was tricked, took abortion pill
    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2013/05/16/nr-man-tricked-girlfriend-abortion-pills.cnn


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