You might recall that the New York Times told readers Kermit Gosnell was on trial for killing fetuses rather than newborns. There was a similar problem at USA Today. We noted when a reporter for a different outlet apologized for calling a newborn child a fetus.
So the problems with journalists using “fetus” to describe children even after they born make the old debates on whether it’s appropriate to use the term in stories about children prior to their birth seem quaint. But yesterday the New York Times came in for some criticism over stilted “fetal” language to describe a tragic death of a woman and her unborn child. From “Falling Tree Shatters Lives and Dreams of a Family“:
The Dikov family keeps an album of photos that document the love story of their son, Aleksander, and his wife, Yingyi Li-Dikov. On each page, they beam, always hugging. In one, Ms. Li-Dikov kneels over a heart drawn in the sand, the initials A and Y at its center.
And on another page is a black-and-white photo: the hazy sonogram of the daughter they were expecting in the fall.
There will be no pictures of mother and child. Ms. Li-Dikov, 30, was killed on Sunday when a giant tree toppled in Kissena Park in Queens, shattering the bench she was resting on and killing her. The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.
Emphasis mine. The caption to the accompanying photo reads:
Yingyi Li-Dikov, 30, and the fetus she was carrying died.
Fetus is a Latin term meaning “young one” but most people refer to their unborn children as unborn children or babies. Tmatt had a great post recently about the tension between the language that abortion rights activists and media types use and the language that people in the real world use when talking about pregnancy:
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)!”
The New York Times‘ use of fetal language for this young victim struck observers as odd. As RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon wrote on Twitter:
Can’t a newspaper be pro-choice without resorting to this? “The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.” http://nyti.ms/187Qeif
It’s certainly true that the language we use to describe a human being says much about whether we value that human being. So I don’t want to downplay the important debates about whether clinical language is appropriate to use when describing those young vulnerable humans who reside in their mothers’ wombs. And yet my main critique is that this is just clunky news writing. We shouldn’t go out of our way to avoid language used universally, particularly in service of an unrelated political agenda. What do you think?
Image of a
baby fetus shower invitation via Shutterstock.