Is it a fetus? Is it a baby? Is it a person, a child, or perhaps a human being?
By Dr. John Ferrer| In the ethics debates over abortion, the status of the aborted individual is no small matter. If that entity is a rights-bearing individual then abortion carries greater ethical weight than otherwise.
It’s no surprise then that pro-life advocates tend to use terminology with “humanizing” qualities for the fetus while abortion-choice advocates tend to use terms laden with “dehumanizing” qualities.
The effort here is precision. Without delving into the deeper waters of the legal definition of “person,” or “baby,” what can we say about that thing inside the mother’s womb? What exactly is it that’s terminated in an abortion?
What Is It?
Despite the apparent controversy over this point, at the popular level, there is no serious controversy about this point among scientists. Biological human life is a scientific issue, among other things, and that qualifies experts in the various life sciences to speak authoritatively on this issue. And speak they have. Pediatrician Dr. Maureen Condic explains:
“The conclusion that human life begins at sperm-egg fusion is uncontested, objective, based on the universally accepted scientific method of distinguishing different cell types from each other and on ample scientific evidence (thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications).
Moreover, it is entirely independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos. Indeed, this definition does not directly address the central ethical question surrounding the embryo: What value ought society place on human life at the earliest stages of development?
A neutral examination of the evidence merely establishes the onset of a new human life at a scientifically well-defined ‘moment of conception,’
a conclusion that unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the one-cell stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species; i.e., human beings.” (“A Scientific View of When Life Begins,” Lozier Institute , pg. 5)
Scientifically speaking, it’s genetic markers and developmental trajectory clearly identify it as a member of the genus and species homo sapiens. As such, it’s a member of the human race, and is biologically identified as “human.” (see also, Whitepaper 1:1 , and Princeton Site).
Perhaps popular level discourse gets derailed on the legal or philosophical definition of personhood mistaking that for the more rudimentary issue of human-status (for example, see Sara Zhang, “Why Science Can’t Say When a Baby’s Life Begins,” Wired Magazine, 2 Oct 2015). If you don’t believe these sources, you can peruse a couple dozen more quotes Handout.Conception Definition with Science Quotes which corroborate this conclusion.
It’s a Living Human
Perhaps someone grants that it’s a “human” but it’s not alive in the normal sense of the word. It’s not alive like you and I are alive, right?
Well, it has all the biological qualities of life, from conception onward, it just manifests them differently with respect to its early stage of development. It’s a tiny, underdeveloped human still inside it’s mother so we can expect it’s attributes of life to manifest differently from us.
But it’s not uncommon for species to manifest radically different mobility, nourishment, adaptations (etc.) relative to their stage of development. Meanwhile, there’s no serious scientific debate as to whether the human in utero is alive or dead.
It’s clearly alive, having the attributes of life including (1) organized structure, (2) ingesting nourishment, (3) excreting waste, (4) responding to stimuli, (5) adapting to environment, and (6) it can reproduce (Source: Biology-Online).
It’s a Living Human Organism
Someone might object that “Just because it’s human doesn’t mean it’s a human, right?”
Lots of things are “human” without being distinct members of the human race. For example, human hair, human skin cells, a human organ, or perhaps a severed human limb, these are all human but none of these are distinct members of the human race. They aren’t “humans” or “a human,” they are humans in the adjectival sense, where “human” is a descriptor characterizing something else: skin, hair, organ, etc.
But this mode of thinking doesn’t correctly describe the human in utero. Once fertilization has occurred, there exists a new individual human organism. It’s genetically distinct from it’s parents.
It has, in itself, all the biological qualities of life (mentioned above). Moreover, it’s cellular composition includes specific specialized organelles, co-operating to achieve these different qualities. It’s a tiny machine. The human in utero is literally a biological organism, and it will remain the numerically same human organism, with the same single lifespan, till it dies even if that’s 100 years later as an old man or old woman.
It’s a Human Being
One of the more controversial terms in this debate doesn’t need to be controversial. “Human being” is a phrase often used synonymously with “person.” And at least since the Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973, it’s a debating feaux paus to refer to the child-in-utero as a “person,” or similarly a “baby.”
However, human being is a nominative sense of the word “human.” The word “human” can be an adjective, merely describing something else: “this looks like human language” or “these rags have human stitching.” The phrase “Human being” designates a “being” which is human. It’s the normal term for a “human,” whether “man, woman or child,” and for any member of the human race, that is, of the genus and species homo sapiens.
Given these features, it is technically precise and judically permitted to call a human in utero a “human being.” But there is a problem. The term “human being” has both a general and a specific usage. It’s more general usage, is the one used here–any member of humankind, the human race, the genus and species homo sapiens.
The more specific usage, and the more common use of the term “human being” is in the sense of “person,” i.e., human persons. On the pro-life side of this debate, there is no shortage of arguments offered to justify defining the human in utero as a “person.” But legally speaking, the Roe v. Wade decision has decided that humans in utero are only “potential persons.” It’s not considered a person in the eyes of the law, and therefore does not have the legal (and potentially ethical) protections promised to persons.
It’s Genetically Distinct From It’s Parents
Through the process of fertilization, also called conception, the two gamete cells–egg and sperm–fuse intermingling the genetic heritage of the father and mother. A new individual has begun, biologically speaking, since it has a wholly unique genetic thumbprint from either the mother or the father. Instead it has features of both the father and the mother, together.
In this way, the child may be in the mother’s body, connected to the mother, and perhaps even “part” of her body, yet it’s a genetically different organism from the mother, with a different set of biological blueprints than hers. The human in utero can have a different gender from the mother, different diseases and conditions from the mother, different blood type, and so on.
One way to put it is that the human in utero relates to his or her mother in physical continuity but substantive discontinuity. They might be linked into a single chain, so to speak, but the links are made of different metal.
It’s a Child-in-Utero
So far, the terms have been scientific terms which have been vetted and agreed upon in the biological and life-sciences. The next term is a term of art established in legal/judicial discourse. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004) established a legal precedent, only tangentially related to abortion-choice policy, wherein the yet-unborn child is called a “child-in-utero.”
Since that law, and the court case history behind it, were not directly addressing abortion the court admitted a legally “safe ground” the phrase “child-in-utero.” Terms like “baby” or “person” might be contentious in a way that’s hard to prove, but the phrase “child-in-utero” is comparably easier to establish.
First, the fetal human stands in a child-to-mother relation with the pregnant woman. It is literally her biological offspring. And the normal term in life science for one’s offspring is one’s “child.” And, second, since that child remains in the womb for the duration of the pregnancy, it is a literally a “child-in-utero.” (Lat. in utero = “in the uterus”). Indeed the word “fetus,” by Latin etymology, means “offspring.”
This phrase, “child-in-utero” might be offensive to some because “child” has connotative force roughly the same as “baby” or “kid.” But the terms remains a part of case law, having legal precedent, and it’s biologically defensible since it’s literally the child of it’s mother and it’s in utero.
Moreover, the term “child-in-utero” is a clear descriptor, identifying the relation of the individual (a child of it’s mother), it’s location (inside the mother’s womb), it’s developmental stage (Zygote, Embryo, or Fetus).
It’s Legally Innocent
Obviously, the child-in-utero cannot rightly be held legally responsible for any crimes any more than 10 month old toddler could. It stands legally innocent before the law. And therefore can not qualify for any capital crime whereby, perhaps, a capital punishment could be passed down on a convicted criminal.
Abortion debates don’t always venture into the wider world of bioethics, but sometimes they do, and so it can be important to remember that the developmental process, from fertilization through child-birth is a natural process.
For what it’s worth, some bioethics issues aren’t dealing in natural processes in the same sense as pregnancy is a natural process. Human beings naturally multiply by sexual reproduction, with an intermingling of two parent genomes through a typically 9-month gestation period.
Medical technology, however, has allowed some flexibility in these “natural” conventions. Some premature births as early as 22 weeks. The earliest surviving “preemie”. James Elgin Gill, born in 1988, was born after only 21 weeks 5 days in utero and is a healthy college student today. We owe a great debt to medical technology for raising the survival rates for premature births. B
ut medical technology has also raised some dicier dilemmas at the borders of human life, including human cloning and in-vitro fertilization. These issues raise some difficult questions worth exploring in bioethics, but for our purposes here, we can note that these scenarios aren’t clearly ‘natural’ in the same sense as conventional pregnancy.
Conventional pregnancy is a normal human biological process “built into” human physiology and psychology via the reproductive processes of sexual intercourse, insemination, gestation, and eventual birth.
But Is it a Fetus?
One conventional term for children-in-utero is “fetus.” This term is true enough, for most purposes. “Fetus” refers to a developmental stage from week 8 onward. Technically, however, it’s not the proper term for weeks 1-2, after conception (The “zygote” stage), or weeks 3-7 (the “embryo” stages). Hence “fetus” is the wrong term for the child-in-utero during weeks 1-7 but only begins to correctly describe the entity from week 8 onward.
Nevertheless, the term “fetus” has come to be used as a generic reference to the child-in-utero, perhaps, in part because it avoids such terms as “baby,” “human,” or “person.” These other terms might suggest pro-life bias. Granting this colloquial usage is fine for what it’s worth: “Fetus” has some value as a term-of-art because it does point out that thing inside the mother’s womb. And it distinguishes it from things like a “tumor” or some otherwise undeveloped amorphous entity.
However the term “fetus” still lacks precision because it doesn’t distinguish the entity inside of human mothers. Put another way, we may ask, “What kind of fetus is it? Is it bovine? Equine? What?” It’s a human fetus.
In the phrase “human fetus,” fetus is a descriptor signifying a developmental stage of something, but it does not itself point out what that thing is. The supporting word “human” is needed for clarification.
We can however use “fetus” in a nominative sense letting the descriptor borrow an implied object, as in, “She wants to abort her fetus” or “He’s no longer a fetus, he’s a full-grown adult.” The descriptor is used in a nominative sense as “[human] fetus,” and “[human] adult.”
Grammatically speaking, nominative usage–like “fetus” for “fetal human”–is allowed, but in this setting it risks undue bias by not allowing the demonstrable key feature, which pro-lifers try to emphasize, it’s status as a human.
But Is It a Clump of Cells or Tissue?
Abortion-choice advocates sometimes use phrases like “its’ just a clump of cells,” or “lump of tissue,” etc. This terminology is exclusively used among abortion-choice advocates and pretty clearly ignores the biology and medical knowledge we have about that entity.
Perhaps in a tenuous sense we could call a living human organism a “clump of cells” or “lump of tissue,” but that description connotes unorganized or perhaps non-living matter. That’s a poor descriptor for a genetically distinct living human organism. And it risks rhetorically loaded language.
After all you and I are “just a clump of cells,” if we are allowing that genetically distinct, natural, living, human organisms qualify as “just a clump of cells.”
But Is It a Pregnancy?
This one might seem unnecessary or even silly, but there’s a valuable distinction worth mentioning here. One of the common definitions of abortion is “terminating a pregnancy.” If abortion terminates something, well, then that terminated something could be a pregnancy right?
The child-in-utero is the obvious distinguishing feature proving the mother’s pregnancy. But the entity, the child-in-utero, is not the same as the process of pregnancy. Pregnancy is a natural process, it is not an individual. The child-in-utero is an individual, undergoing a process called pregnancy. But it is not identical with the pregnancy.
That definition of abortion–as “terminating a pregnancy”–is a bad definition anyway, since child-birth terminates a pregnancy too. Any definition of abortion which equally suits child-birth is a bad definition. The child-in-utero is the defining feature of a pregnancy but is not identical with the pregnancy.
Clearer definitions, here, add “terminating a pregnancy before the fetus is viable” (i.e., can survive outside the womb). This is a better definition of “abortion,” except that it risks the same problems as the “fetal” definition above. If a human being is killed, by abortive measures, in week 7 it’s not yet a fetus, but still subject to abortion.
But Is It a Product of Conception?
One of the more clever terms of art that has been coined in the age of abortion-choice policy is “product of conception.” This language is technically correct, in that the child-in-utero is a product of conception. But seeing as how you and I are products of conception too, that’s not a great identifying term.
Still, this language has some advantages over the terms “fetus” and “clump of cells.” It doesn’t specify a stage of development, only the results of a stage of development (conception). So it does not misidentify the child-in-utero as a fetus, when it might be an embryo, or a zygote.
Also, it’s not committed to any particular identification or marker for that entity. Functionally, this phrase is very useful for abortion providers since it is extremely depersonalized, lacking any humanizing connotations.
However, it’s generality sacrifices precision. Because the phrase is so broad, it include, besides the child-in-utero, other organic results from conception such as the amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord, and the amniotic sack. There’s no abortion debate regarding the destruction of amniotic fluid, unless perhaps that fluid is being tampered with in a way that helps or harms the child-in-utero.
To refer to the child-in-utero in the sweeping phrase “product of conception” includes too much in it’s borders. The child is biologically and organically distinct from it’s food source, its feeding tube, and its surrounding environment.
Moreover, this descriptor is only that: a description and not an identifying term. This phrase is a kind of working/approximate definition, where we are referring to things not for what they are but for some process or secondary qualities associated with them. Linguistically this is adequate in some cases, and it might be the best we can do in other cases.
But when it comes to children-in-utero it risks duplicity when the phrase neatly avoids admitting just what kind of entity is being aborted, and we have plenty of evidence and knowledge and associated terminology to call it what it is. Linguistically, it’s a poor reference term which exclusively employs round-about descriptors when we have plenty of suitable, established identifiers for a thing.
We can illustrate the problem with an analogy. Suppose we spoke of an individual not by name, or title, or family, but by saying “I mean the one with the Hawaiian shirt and the long hair over there.” We might be able to identify which individual is indicated. But we still don’t know if it’s a corpse? A manikin? A woman? A Man? Or a dressed up pig at a pet parade?
Similarly, with the phrase “product of conception,” we can rightly ask what is the product of conception? Is it a human being? A blastocyst? A cow? A pig? A tumor? By staying intentionally ambiguous, one risks biasing the speaker with ignorance, as if one does not want to know what that thing is which has results from conception.
In summary, we can safely say that the object or entity in question is a child-in-utero, a natural living human organism; it is legally innocent and genetically distinct from it’s parents.
Prolifers may be tempted to call it a “baby” or a “person,” but there are plenty of non-contentious and, perhaps, easier to defend terms and qualifiers to choose from instead.
Other terms of art, often used in this debate are problematic and risk misidentifying the child-in-utero: “fetus” (which is only one of several stages of development in utero), “product of conception” (which includes things like the amniotic sack, the umbilical cord, and fluid), and “pregnancy” (which is the biological process, not the entity undergoing that process).