Hey journalists: Please look up ‘fetus’ in a dictionary

Once again, let us return to the dictionary and ponder why some journalists in our age are having trouble using a basic scientific term that has become all too common in our news.

The word of the day is “fetus.” Look it up and you’ll find the following information or something close to it:

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, GetReligion readers may recall that the word “fetus” became rather controversial during the trial of the infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell. At the heart of that trial were debates about the accuracy of allegations made by Gosnell’s coworkers that he regularly delivered late-term “fetuses” (as many news reports said) alive and then killed them.

Of course, there’s the journalism issue — clear as day. Gosnell was not killing “fetuses,” because these children had already been delivered. With the snip of his scissors, he was killing, one after another, newborn babies. What part of “to the moment of birth” is so hard for some editors and reporters to grasp?

Clearly, language used in press reports was being shaped by larger debates about law, abortion, morality, religion and science. Religion? Yes. More on that in a minute.

I thought this mainstream-media argument ended with the Gosnell trial, when The New York Times tweaked its published reports on the trial.

Apparently not, as the still Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway recently tweeted:

And what did that language look like in the Associated Press report?

NEW YORK (AP) – An autopsy of a fetus found in a teenage girl’s shopping bag at a New York City lingerie store was inconclusive, and more tests will be needed to determine how the fetus died, the city medical examiner’s office says.

The needed tests could take a couple of weeks as police continue to look into the macabre case, the office said Friday.

Preliminary reports from detectives suggest the fetus was born alive and possibly had been asphyxiated, but chief New York Police Department spokesman John McCarthy said that the case was still being investigated and that police were awaiting the medical examiners’ determination of the cause of death. The medical examiners also will determine whether it was a live birth.

The case began Thursday when a security guard stopped two 17-year-old girls to examine their bags at a Victoria’s Secret store in midtown Manhattan. The guard found the dead fetus in one of the bags.

So the whole point of the story is that it is not clear, at this time, whether or not the child was born alive?

Still, the story noted that those detective reports suggested that someone had smothered or strangled a newborn infant, not a “fetus,” because — there’s that dictionary definition again — the unborn child was a “fetus” up until the moment it was born.

Of course, the moment AP started quoting real people, speaking ordinary English, the language become much more blunt and practical.

The 17-year-old found with the fetus hasn’t been charged in its discovery, and her lawyer said Saturday it was up to the district attorney to bring more serious charges.

“Right now, there’s no proof that she facilitated the death of the baby,” said attorney Genay Ann Leitman. “She’s a 17-year-old who just had a child die. It’s pretty traumatic for anybody, kid or adult.”

Now, before readers click “comment” and state that all of this has nothing to do with religion news, I would simply urge readers to dig into the public debates on this language issue and then try to argue that there is no religious or moral component to questions about when life begins, when “ensoulment” takes place and when the terms “infant” or even “unborn child” should be used in public media.

Just saying.

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.

  • MargaretBranniganKelly

    So it may or may not have been delivered, which means it may or may not have been a fetus, defined as a member of the unborn human young from eight months post-conception to the moment of birth. You have to admit it would be awkward for news sources to write “what may have been either a fetus or a baby.” It does seem noteworthy that they defaulted to “fetus.”

    • helen

      Would it sound too dumb (or beyond the limits of this list) to ask how a child “found in a bag” “may or may not have been delivered”!?

      Inside the woman=fetus
      Outside the woman=baby

      Is this really “rocket science”!?

      • Ben

        Helen, I think you are forgetting the possibility of a stillbirth. So, if outside the woman (but dead before left) = fetus. That’s the ambiguity here.

  • Julia B

    Margaret: you nailed it. And they can’t really use “alleged baby” b/c nothing has been alleged at this point.

  • tmatt

    OK, but you still have to deal with the material about the police suggestions that the child was born alive. That language is in the story and it would be good to be consistent with it. There would need to be a way to handle both potential scenarios accurately.

    • FW Ken

      Could they explain their choice of words in a couple of sentences that defined “fetus” and noted the difficulty of taking about it in the absence of knowledge? That could inform and defuse criticism.


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