Like many other controversial and emotional topics, discussions about abortion can end up being about anything other than abortion. Often, the two sides end up arguing back and forth over terminology, rather than ideas. This just leads to endless frustration and usually no one learns anything. As we at the Minimise Project are all about helping people have better conversations, here is our take on one of the most common terminology wars that crops up in this debate: whether we should refer to human beings as a “baby” or a “foetus” before they are born.
This is a particularly frustrating debate because it really is sort of a pointless disagreement. The reason it’s pointless is because we are talking about scientific and medical terms, and there should be no disagreement. However, there often is, usually because neither pro-life nor pro-choice people actually understand the scientific and medical terms to describe human beings in the earliest stages of development.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the scientific terms for an early human being are zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and foetus. However, while pro-life people may agree on the correct scientific terms, they are frustrated with pro-choice people who insist on using scientific terms under certain circumstances and non-scientific terms under other circumstances. Pro-choice people only use the word “foetus”, for example, to refer to the human being who is killed during an abortion, and never to refer to the human being who is joyfully expected by them or their family or friends. When the pregnancy is wanted, it’s a baby. When abortion is being discussed, it’s a foetus.
It’s difficult to describe how frustrating this is for a pro-life person. It feels like the pro-choice person in question is picking and choosing their terminology with deliberately loaded objectives. It feels like they are so very blatantly and deliberately dehumanising the unborn human being, while simultaneously receiving pats on the back for taking the intellectual high ground. Pro-life people feel like pro-choice people are smugly smirking at usage of childish unscientific terminology that in fact pro-choice people themselves happily use – but only when it suits their agenda.
However, I want to raise two points. The first is that while I don’t know many people who have had an abortion, I do know some, and they always used the term “baby”. Healthcare professionals, both prolife and prochoice, who counsel women facing crisis pregnancies, report the same. Pro-life people should perhaps be more charitable when assigning motives to pro-choice people who use baby in one context and foetus in another. I might use casual colloquial terms when talking to my husband, and technical terms when talking to my doctor, but that doesn’t make me a hypocrite or mean that I have some hidden agenda. Maybe I just like to use formal words in formal settings and informal words in informal settings.
Furthermore, perhaps pro-choice people do indeed “know” that technically, to be consistent, they should use the word foetus because they don’t actually think unborn babies have the same moral status as a human being who has been born. They even acknowledge this to be true of their own unborn baby. However, in order to avoid controversy where there is none (where the baby is wanted), and in order to not seem weird, they use the word “baby”, although if you pushed them, they might admit that this is not strictly accurate, according to their view of the unborn.
The second point to make here is that pro-choice people do often make an actual factual error around this terminology, specifically when they claim a foetus “becomes” a baby when it is born. This is simply untrue. The technical medical term for a newborn baby is a neonate. After thirty days, it’s an infant. “Baby”, on the other hand, is a non-technical, non-medical term, and can be used to describe a young human being, either before or after birth, as the speaker desires. Baby is to foetus as tummy is to abdomen, and not as butterfly is to caterpillar.
I suspect many pro-choice people are actually unaware of this fact. They really do think that according to medical terminology, a foetus “becomes” a baby when it is born. So the next time you hear a pro-choice person using the term “foetus” instead of baby, why not stop short of calling them a hypocrite, or asking them sarcastically whether they ever heard a pregnant woman saying “The foetus has the hiccups!”. Try instead saying “I’m curious as to why you use the non-technical term of “baby” after birth, rather than the technical term of “neonate”, but before birth you use the technical term only. Can you explain why?”. Maybe they’re just not aware of the accurate scientific terms. Maybe they are, and have another reason for their choice of words. One or both of you might learn something.