Semantics: ‘Unborn baby’ or ‘fetus’?

semanticsDoes a pregnant woman carry a “fetus” or a “baby”? It depends on where you are, who you are, and who’s answering the question.

Last Thursday in Longmont, Colo., a drunk six-time DUI offender ran a red light and struck another car before fleeing the scene. Heather Surovik, the pregnant driver of the second car, was critically injured; her nearly full-term fetus/baby, already named Brady Paul, died.

The local media have differed in their reporting of the story, some referring to a “fetus,” some to a “baby.” A Denver Post story (by a Longmont reporter) said “unborn child” in the headline (which was probably written by a DP editor) and referred several times to the “baby.” One frustrated reader commented:

So if it’s an unborn that a woman WANTS to keep, it’s a baby … if she wishes to have an abortion it’s a fetus. Geez, people, make up your mind.

A follow-up story a few days later in the Longmont Times-Call added to the confusion. In its lede it referred to the “near-term fetus.” Then it quoted the country coroner, who spoke of the “death of a baby.” Three paragraphs later came this statement from the grieving family:

“Calling him a ‘fetus’ is offensive to our family. He was ready to be born within days and did not get that opportunity because someone that should not have been allowed to drive was behind the wheel of a vehicle.”

Finally, the reporter reverted to saying “near-term fetus” before explaining the legal issue of whether a vehicular homicide charge can or will be added to those against the drunk driver. In Colorado, it depends on whether the baby died in utero or after being born alive.

Near-term fetus. Unborn baby. Does or should the terminology matter? It mattered very much to the family eagerly anticipating the arrival of little Brady Paul. But it is always medically, scientifically, and factually correct to say “fetus.” The legally correct term would probably vary depending on the state in which the death occurred and whether that state defines human life as beginning at conception, viability, or birth. Doctors probably adjust their language for each patient, saying “baby” if the mother wants her baby and “fetus” if she is considering an abortion. The clergy, concerned with souls and religious teachings, would likely refer to an unborn “baby” or “child.” Pro-choice advocates would have to stick to “fetus” so as not to undermine their position, while pro-lifers would probably insist on “baby” from the moment of conception.

It remains a dilemma for writers who care about accuracy and impartiality and don’t want to appear biased in any way. It’s also a problem for their editors, whose job it is to enforce whatever style rules are in effect in their workplace. Ultimately, there is legal and journalistic safety in the cold neutrality of “fetus.” But there is very little compassion.

My Associated Press stylebook is 12 years old and does not address the issue at all. The closest thing I could find online was a 2009 post quoting a Q&A from the AP website that year:

Q. We reported on an accident in which a woman who was several months pregnant died and so did the unborn child. We went with ‘fetus’ but the question came up of proper usage. Should it be ‘fetus’ until born, ‘unborn child,’ or is there another locution? Thanks. — from Escondido, CA on Tue, Jan 06, 2009

A. Human fetus describes eighth week of development to birth. Unborn child usually refers to a late-stage fetus that could survive outside the womb if born prematurely.

I take this as permission to call Brady Paul Surovik an unborn child, a baby. But then, I’m not a mainstream reporter likely to be pilloried by pro-choice advocates for “selling out” or pro-lifers for “finally revealing my true beliefs.” Nor do I risk being fired by an angry editor-in-chief for violating house style. Retirement has its advantages.

______

(Note: For the record, I am immutably pro-choice.)

__
About the drunk driver:

Gary Sheats had a blood alcohol content of 0.292 percent, almost four times the legal limit, when he was arrested. He has been charged with two felony counts of vehicular assault, one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injuries, leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence, driving under the influence with a BAC greater than .08, driving under the influence with three or more prior arrests, disregarding a traffic control device, driving while driver’s license is under restraint, possession of less than one ounce marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. As mentioned above, a count of vehicular homicide may be added to these charges.

Beats me why someone like this was free to drive around endangering other people — again. A driver’s license, whether valid, revoked, under restraint, suspended, or whatever, is just a piece of paper. It cannot physically stop someone from repeatedly driving drunk. Jail can.

Update, July 12, 2012: The coroner found that the baby died in utero. As a result, under Colorado law, Sheats cannot be charged with homicide.

Update, March 13, 2013: Gary Sheats was to be sentenced next month and faced up to 20 years in prison. He was found dead in a motel room yesterday, an apparent suicide.

Update, November 2014: With strong support from Mrs. Surovik, who hoped to amend the law so that her child’s death  (and any future, similar deaths) would have been declared a homicide, a “personhood” amendment was added to Colorado’s 2014 ballot. It failed to pass, as had two previous such proposals in Colorado.



Categories: Media, Society, Writing

53 replies

  1. A well-written account of the issues here, PT, albeit without resolution of the controversy. But that’s because no resolution is possible. Fetal development is a system continuum. The process is continuous with no natural demarkation of stage. It is what it is.

    Consider the similar issue of adulthood. Does a human being metamorphose from child to adult overnight when she attains her 18th birthday? Of course not. In fact, studies show that the immature brain usually does not attain full maturity until the late 20’s. The lines of demarkation, of definition, are legal conveniences, nothing more and nothing less. Just to be argumentative I suppose, I submit that tots younger than 2 or 3 are not human beings but a prior stage of that status because they do not exhibit self-awareness and because the people they become retain no memories of that stage. But, like fetuses, they are potential human beings, just as a sprout is a potential tree.

    All of this of course is meaningful only in a legal context. In a personal context the destruction of a couple’s future child-bearing capacity in any way would, under any circumstance, be the murder of a generation of people. It is only under the contexts of religion and religion-related law that fine definition is required or desirable.

    • The only resolution I really wanted was a definitive statement of the “official” (AP) position on the issue. But I couldn’t find it. Not for free, anyway. And I’m not curious enough to buy a new AP stylebook. If anyone out there has one and can quote the AP on this, I’d really love to know.

      I have to disagree with your argument that 2- or 3-year-olds are not human beings based on their lack self-awareness; we’ve all seen very young babies become fascinated with their own hands as soon as they can see well enough. I don’t know if that counts as self-awareness or just awareness of something moving. Still, I don’t know of anyone who would argue that a fetus, once born and viable, is not a human being. Unless of course, like you, they are trying to be argumentative about the definition of “human being.” (You must be a real hoot at home. 😉 )

      • The wife has a special ability to ignore my contentious side, thank goodness. In real life I am actually a nice guy, kind to people of all ages and pets of all kinds. I even avoid stepping on bugs. I routinely stop the car to rescue terrapins that get caught between the berms of our street. 😉

        • Okay, now I know for sure you’re a nice guy (never really doubted it). Only the nicest stop to move terrapins out of the road. My dad did that when I was a kid and I’ve never forgotten it (mentioned it in “Stopping for turtles”). It’s the sign of a truly kind, gentle person.

        • I have to agree with you Jim, there is no clear cut. They say death happens when brain activity is dead and no longer. Yet they say a baby is alive when it draws its first breath, not when brain activity starts. They feel a baby is only a baby and human when it can live and survive outside the womb, but what do you call a man laying on a bed supported by a ventilator and can not breath and care for himself and in a coma? Is he still considered human and alive even when he is unable to survive on his own or just another liability to society, unclassified as human, and should be allowed to die or get killed instead of trying to save his life? Who makes that call what he is at that point? When science is unreliable in determining what is what, should we turn to religion for answers to define the situation so that we are all on the same page?

          • Welcome, Bat Sheva Sida. This is an older discussion and unless Jim is tracking it, you probably won’t get a reply from him. But as always, I’m willing to offer my two cents’ worth.

            You raise an interesting point about brain activity in a fetus vs. that in a dying man. However, I’m not sure it’s a good analogy because the fetus develops some brain activity prior to birth, but is not considered to be a viable baby / human being until it is born and can survive on its on. The dying man, however, is already a mature human being and does not cease being so until brain death. He, hopefully, has a Living Will in place in which he has spelled out the type of care he wants at the end of life. In lieu of that, his closest next of kin would probably make the decision. I don’t agree with Jim’s continuum idea. A human life begins with survivability at birth and ends with brain death. Before viability and birth, you have a fetus and after brain death, a corpse. These are science’s guidelines, not mine. I doubt religion will ever put us on the same page because it has a different set of guidelines.

    • My friend, your words illustrate the dangerous slippery slope of an unfettered abortion policy in your alarming speculation that toddlers are not human beings. Toddlers are obviously self aware, and the cognizance of infants is a marvel to behold. I would purport that late-termers in-utero probably have a high level of awareness also.

      By the same logic you could proclaim that the elderly are no longer human beings because of their physical and/or mental impairment. No doubt we have elderly family members who should be terminated because of their diminishing “self-awareness.” And of course the fate of the mentally impaired at any age should be determined by the same cool-headed, logical and irreligious rationale you have submitted.

      There are a surprising number of people who exhibit more care for feral cats or trees than unborn children. I think it is a great hypocrisy how we apply the term “baby” if he is wanted and “fetus” if he is unwanted. If she is wanted we spare no expense with heroic efforts to spare the life, including complicated in-utero procedures. If she is unwanted, e.g conflicts with ulterior financial or career priorities (30% of all abortions) or the individual is simply “not ready” to have a child (another 30%), she is casually cast off into nonexistence.

      Polls show a very high percentage of journalists are pro-choice, and they for the most part choose their words carefully to cast abortion in an increasingly favorable light. They don’t even use the term “abortion” much anymore, it is increasingly presented as “women’s health issues” and “reproductive rights.” I think the late Joseph Goebbels would admire our cool, scientific approach to today’s modern challenges as well as our skilled wordsmithing.

    • If one truly wants to know what a fetus is one should look no further than the “NOAH WEBSTER 1828 AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE”. There my friend,we will find the definition to most if not all the words that were used in the English language at that time in American history. If we want to change the definition of the word/term “fetus” we need to come up with a NEW word. After all an apple back then is an apple now. Gold back then is gold now,and what we referred to as water back then is what we refer to as water now.

      • The 1828 dictionary definition:

        FE’TUS, n. plu. fetuses. [L. faetus.] The young of viviparous animals in the womb, and of oviparous animals in the egg, after it is perfectly formed; before which time it is called embryo. A young animal then is called a fetus from the time its parts are distinctly formed, till its birth.

        Thanks, John. I had no idea this old dictionary was available online.

        • Thank you for your timely reply. Did you know that the term “unborn child” can be found in Blacks Law Dictionary within the definition of Fetus?

          • It hadn’t occurred to me that a scientific/medical term would appear in a legal dictionary, but of course it would, given all the legal activity in that area. Do you have a link for it? I’d be interested in seeing it.

            • Again,thank you for your reply. My only link is to GOOGLE Blacks Law Dictionary and it will direct me to an online application to the dictionary.I did not have to subscribe to any service either.I happen to have an Abridged Fifth Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary (With Pronunciations) in my library.
              I have emailed an inquiry to the comments section of their Web page as to when and why they decided to add “unborn child” to the definition of fetus in their dictionary. After all,I do believe that word/term “fetus” was adequately defined in 1828 as it was linked to the developmental stage of ANIMAL growth and NOT human growth.
              Very Respectfully John G Steidley

  2. To me, it’s simple. A fetus is a baby that is still in the womb. The terminology is changed to help “serve” the cause at hand.

    • And some would say your position also serves a cause. (Not me, of course.)

      • Well, I suppose it does since I’m pro-choice. But I still think scientifically a fetus is an unborn whatever.

        • No argument there. Which is why the variable reporting on this story caught my attention. Are there no standards on this? Or multiple standards? The AP is the gold standard for mainstream news media, but I couldn’t find a definitive statement from them. At least not without subscribing to their website.

        • Fetus is from latin meaning off spring (among other similar things). Why don’t we use the term off spring instead? This way it doesn’t minimize his/her existence.

          • “Fetus” doesn’t minimize existance; in fact, it confirms it. It is a scientific and medical term with precise meaning in the continuum of development from fertilization to birth (specifically, from the end of the eighth week of pregnancy to birth).

      • That was an interesting reply someone left to my comment. You apparently didn’t approve it, which I wouldn’t have either. “…However,if and when medical service is required to deliver that baby,please remember to contact the appropriate medical doctor; an MD. for the child and the VET MD. for the animal….” I’ll have to remember that next time around. 😉

    • Red Light. Give someone else a chance. I am not a pro choicer. I believe that what a woman carries inside of her is a fetus who will become a baby once it takes its first breath of the air outside.

      Now who can argue about that? I guess I just might read their argument now. Thank goodness it is still a free country, at least it was the last time I looked…

    • I certainly enjoy life every time I open my eyes and see it is a new day. I am thankful my mother never considered me and my twin sister anything but her babies, and I suspect you are glad that is how your dear old mom considered you too.

    • Yes,a fetus has been defined as a baby that is still in the womb. However,if and when medical service is required to deliver that baby,please remember to contact the appropriate medical doctor; an MD. for the child and the VET MD. for the animal.After all they are both babies! This way the appropriate cause will be served.

  3. Maybe they should call it a “betus” or a “fayby.” Then there’s no problem. Or you could say “proto-human.” But then it sounds like an unborn cro-magnon. This might be okay if the father was Ozzy Osborne, but most people would probably dislike the term. In any case, unborn child and fetus are probably synonymous for most people. As to which term you should use, you should really consult a style guide. Each news retailer should have their own style guide, but even then there’s no guarantee any given writer is going to consult it.

    Does it smack of pro-choice vs. right to life viewpoints to use one or the other? I’m guessing yes. The right to life crowd probably doesn’t even like the term fetus, but I can’t be sure on that as I don’t usually avail myself of their literature, but I’m guessing they use unborn baby as a general rule, or just baby. The pro-choice people, on the other hand, probably use whatever term happens to suit them at the time, or maybe their style guide says to use fetus. Again, I have no idea.

    Interesting topic.

    • I rather like “proto-human.” It has a nice ring to it.

      I would happily consult a stylebook if I weren’t too cheap to buy a new one. I have 3 or 4 different ones that I used every day at my last job, which makes all of them at least 10 years old. This particular question isn’t addressed in any of them. Clearly the local media are not adhering to any one style, but then, I’m not sure today’s “journalists” even know what a stylebook is.

  4. It’s just a highly personal term which varies according to people and circumstances. If a fetus is killed in an automobile accident where the the pregnant woman is on her way to an appointment with an abortion doctor, does it matter? To who does it matter? Would the woman consider it a blessing not to have to live with what she might later think of as murder?

    The constitution describes a citizen to be “A person born…” Is the federal government empowered to protect unborn people? States surely are, but I don’t see any federal authority without another constitutional amendment. It’s still going to be a highly personal decision.

    • If a woman is on her way to have an abortion, she will never think of it as murder as it will have taken place in its very early stages and obviously was not wanted. Yes, I agree, this is as and should remain a very personal decision.

    • Of course abortion is a highly personal decision. It’s the woman’s personal, private decision and no one else’s business. Not the state’s and not the federal government’s (even though some states keep trying). The Supreme Court has said as much. Yes, it’s a difficult decision for most women, in part because they do worry about possibly having regrets in the future.

      But abortion is not the issue here. The pregnant woman in this story was nearly full-term and eagerly anticipating the birth of her baby.

    • Of course it is soley the woman’s decision. The thing inside her is merely an extension of her own body. The fact that from the onset, this growth develops its own and distinctive DNA, blood type, brain waves, perhaps eye and hair color,separate responses to stimuli, and independent motor movements should not cloud our thinking in any way regarding the growth. These kinds of distractions and the unauthorized words we choose only serve to make individuals uncomfortable in the choices they make, and they might begin to doubt the correctness of their decision.

  5. Semantics. I was only interested in the local reporters’ semantics. “Back in the day” we (reporters, journalists) all would have referred to stylebooks for a ruling on the preferred way to refer to an unborn child or fetus, knowing that our choice of words might imply unintended meaning if we weren’t careful. And because we all referred to the same stylebook, we’d all use the same language. Maybe it’s no longer done that way. Certainly it isn’t being done that way in the case of this story and the local media.

  6. Reblogged this on Perfect Storm 73 and commented:
    to me it’s a baby from the very start.

  7. It’s an unborn child to me; using the term fetus is a ploy to get people to stop thinking about the unborn as viable unborn children. My mother had two abortions before she had me, then she abandoned me when I was 7 because my dad left her her and she didn’t want to raise a kid on her own. people who have abortions are the worst kind of people. They are the most selfish people on the planet; willing to kill their own offspring just to live without responsibility.

    • I appreciate your feelings about your mother, but most women who have abortions are trying to be responsible. “The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.” — Guttmacher Institute

      • Exactly my point, selfishness is the main cause. I got pregnant at 19 with no job and no college education and I was not raised by a family. I still made it work, sire life was tough for a while but that’s what happens when you make mistakes. These women want to skip the part where they deal with their actions. It’s disgusting.

        • And what if it was an accident, as with failed contraception? What if it was someone else’s fault, as with rape? What if there’s a medical condition endangering the mother’s life? It’s not always possible to “make it work.” It’s not always the result of a “mistake.” And what if it were? What business is it of yours? You managed your life in the way you thought was best. Other women have the right to do the same.

          • Rape is another story and so are medical issues; my comments clearly state, that the women who use abortion to avoid the responsibility of raising a child are selfish. It’s my business because I have walked through those womens shoes; so I have the RIGHT to speak up! Unlike yourself who has ZERO experience with this issue personally! As a parent I know the dangers of not making your child suffer the consequences of their mistakes in life. Abortion is no different! It’s a get out of jail free card for self centered women who don’t want the burden of a child and it’s sick! How many aborted fetuses have you seen btw? Ever had the guts to actually look at the bodies of the “fetuses” that were aborted? I seriously doubt it!

            • You sound like a bitter woman who wants other women to face the same hardships you did. Of course you have the right to speak up, and I’ve allowed you to do so, even though abortion was not the subject of this post. However, your personal experience in no way entitles you to tell other women what decisions to make about their own lives.

              And by the way, don’t make ignorant assumptions about me and my private life. You know nothing about me or my experiences as a woman, a wife, and a mother.

      • It has been a while since I last heard from you,and yes it is good to hear from you again. Here is a question for Maryln. If a person is pronounced dead when their hart stops beating,why does not the medical professionals declare the baby alive at the first evidence of a heart beat?

        • I don’t really know personally, I ask myself all the time why people say it’s a woman’s choice when she couldn’t have created the baby by herself. It’s one of the biggest example’s of male sexsim around today. It’s half his DNA, but only she gets the right to decide if it lives or dies? It’s bullcrap.

          Then you have the doctor who took an oath to do not harm; yet he is stopping a beating heart for cash money.

          This world has taken a crazy pill and I just wish people would wake up.

          Killing our own offspring? For nothing other than a more convenient lifestyle?

          How people can sit by and act like this is normal is beyond me.

    • The original definition of the word “fetus” can be found in the 1828 Websters Dictionary of The English Language. It has nothing to do with the unborn baby a women is carrying in her womb.A new definition was given to an old word to confuse the under educated and to those who will believe anything they are told.

  8. An interesting debate.
    In reference to the original post I was interested to ask the question: As an unborn child becomes ‘viable’ at a younger age due to the advances in medical science, should it lower the age of when a fetus is described as a baby?
    Is our terminology dictated by our scientific advances?

    • I don’t see science changing its terminology just because the age of viability gets younger; the term “fetus” does not relate to the age of viability (possibly able to survive outside the womb) but to actual birth. A fetus doesn’t become a baby until it’s born, whenever that occurs.

  9. A lie does not become truth, wrong does not become right, and evil does not become good just because it is accepted by a majority. To whom much is given, much is required! Not every woman has the opportunity to have a baby. When she is give that opportunity, killing the baby in the womb does not show any regard for life.

    • Not every woman considers pregnancy an “opportunity.” But whatever she thinks about it and whatever she does about it, it’s her pregnancy and her life, not yours, mine, or anyone else’s. And the law protects her decision. Just as it protects the decision your wife or daughter might make.

      • If pregnancy is not an opportunity what is it then? Unless it’s rape, having sex is a choice. Choices have consequences. A seared conscious will have consequences that many will never recover from. Remember the unborn baby is LIVIVG…in the womb. This is not rocket science.

        • It’s a wonderful opportunity for a woman who wants a baby; it’s a disaster or tragedy for a woman who does not want and/or is not prepared to have and raise a baby. You are discounting rape, failed birth control, ignorance (lack of sex education), dangers of pregnancy and/or childbirth to the woman, hopelessly deformed fetuses, etc. You are ignoring completely that an unwanted pregnancy/child can destroy a woman’s reputation, her livelihood, her plans for the future. The effects of a pregnancy are not of limited duration — they are lifelong. Once a parent always a parent. Judge not, John.

          • I apologize for sounding judgmental, for when I point a finger at anyone…I have three fingers pointing right back at me! Before consensual sex begins…it is not a ca sara sara moment neither does it mean “ignorance is bliss” Poor planning on our part does not constitute an emergency on their part. It sounds to me like a lot of men and women are not prepared for the consequences of risky or complicated or unplanned pregnancies. Disaster and or tragedy usually ends in death, and in these cases it is almost always the LIVIVG baby…in the womb.
            Thank you for your ear.

            • Admittedly a lot more people need to be a lot more careful and informed about sex and birth control. That’s why sex education is so important, and one reason Planned Parenthood is so urgently needed. It provides that education, and in many lower income communities may be the only source for it.

              No apology needed. You’re certainly entitled to your beliefs. I just wanted to point out that others are equally entitled to their beliefs.

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