These past few weeks, proponents of abortion rights have had a lot to say about the importance of using the “correct” language when discussing abortion. Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices, issued a guidance reminder that included the following noteworthy policy: “Babies are not babies until they are born. They’re fetuses. Incorrectly calling a fetus a ‘baby’ or ‘the unborn’ is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.”
Indeed, yours truly had the pleasure of being dunked on by hundreds of Twitter followers of Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a radical abortion-rights advocate who recently declared that “all abortions are moral,” for claiming that “baby” is a perfectly sensible term to use for a fetus, despite its being a colloquial term instead of a medical one.
When Justice Clarence Thomas referred to a woman seeking an abortion as a “mother,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quick to rebuke him for using such a loaded and inaccurate term for a fetus-bearer.
More recently, when pro-lifers balked at Illinois’s repeal of its ban on partial-birth abortion, pro-choice activists were quick to point out, as they always are, that “partial-birth abortion” isn’t a medical term. Rather, it’s a political term that was invented by zealous pro-lifers to manipulate passions and deceive the public.
The through-line here is that colloquial terms such as “baby,” “mother,” and “partial-birth abortion” unfairly stack the deck in favor of the pro-life position by conveying inaccuracies or implying certain value judgments about the fetus. We must be both accurate and neutral when discussing abortion rights, and that can be achieved only when we stick to the technical, medical definitions of terms.
There is some truth to this. When I teach on the ethics of abortion, I take care to use neutral terms such as “fetus,” so as not to prejudge the debate in favor of one side or the other. In many contexts, there is utility in describing things in the leanest terms possible.
But you will never find me declaring to my students that colloquial terms such as “baby” are wrong. There are two important reasons for this.
First, there is a distinction between a term’s being incorrect and its being non-technical. It is not true that, simply by virtue of being non-technical, colloquial terms for medical realities fail to pick them out. Indeed, countless colloquial terms for medical realities clearly refer to those realities. No one thinks that “hay fever,” “chicken pox,” and “measles” are “incorrect” terms for allergic rhinitis, varicella, and rubeola, respectively. And while pro-choice activists may not like it, the range of meaning of the English term “baby” clearly includes “fetus,” even outside the context of abortion.
Indeed, doctors themselves often use colloquial terms when discussing medical realities with non-experts, including their own patients, for the simple reason that they typically communicate information to a lay audience in a way that technical medical terminology cannot. This includes calling a fetus a “baby,” at least if the baby — sorry, I mean fetus — is wanted.
This is precisely why the term “partial-birth abortion” is much more apt than its technical medical counterpart, “intact dilation and extraction.” (In fact, a partial-birth abortion is a particular type of intact D&E.) Your average layperson has no idea that the “intact dilation and extraction” performed in a partial-birth abortion involves the delivery of “a living, unborn child’s body until either the entire baby’s head is outside the body of the mother, or any part of the baby’s trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother and only the head remains inside the womb, for the purpose of performing an overt act (usually the puncturing of the back of the child’s skull and removing the baby’s brains).” The term “partial-birth abortion” conveys this (ghastly) information much better to a lay audience than does “intact dilation and extraction.”
That covers the accuracy side of things. I also don’t assume in my lectures that the value implications of terms such as “baby” are wrong. That would be to pre-judge the debate about the ethics of abortion in favor of the pro-choice side, no less than would assuming that the value implications of the colloquial terms are correct. When I teach abortion ethics, I leave it up in the air as to whether a fetus deserves to be called a “baby.” While calling an unborn life a fetus does not itself imply a value judgment, requiring that we use the term “fetus” instead of “baby” for an unborn life because the latter “incorrectly” implies a value judgment does imply a value judgment, namely that fetuses are not valuable in the way that babies are. Pro-choice doctors who insist that we must say “fetus” because “baby” is incorrect for this reason are simply smuggling in an unjustified, non-medical judgment about the moral value of unborn lives, one that they are not really qualified to make. An ethical judgment is not de facto justified just because it comes wrapped in a white lab coat. That’s the stuff that eugenics is made of.
The fact that there is an agenda at work here is made abundantly clear by the NPR policy cited above. “Babies are not babies until they are born,” we’re told. But “baby” isn’t the technical medical term for a newborn, either; that would be “neonate.” And yet abortion proponents and activists, including pro-choice doctors, have no problem using the term “baby” to refer to newborns. This reveals that their seemingly neutral guidance is not so neutral after all. And that is the point. Banning colloquial terminology from the abortion debate can be as manipulative as insisting on it, and even more so. It shields morally relevant details from the public in the name of medical accuracy, and it assumes without justification that fetuses lack the moral status that many of our colloquial terms assume.
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