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When Is A Baby Not A Baby?

When the media keep calling babies outside the womb “fetuses,” it suggests they don’t want a discussion of what we do to the youngest humans.


A Victoria’s Secret security guard made a grim discovery on Thursday when searching the bags of two girls he suspected of shoplifting. In addition to allegedly finding stolen goods, he discovered, according to the New York Police Department, a dead baby.

This horrifying information is almost too difficult to comprehend. Who would carry around human remains? Why? How did this baby die?

These questions might take some time to answer. But it is interesting to note how the Associated Press reported this news. They sent out the following tweet:

This wouldn’t be the first time the AP Twitter feed had problems related to unborn children. But that’s what is so weird about this tweet: Why in the world is the Associated Press referring to a dead baby in a bag as a fetus? An apparent fetus.

Let’s first look at the definition of “fetus“:

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.

Until the moment of birth. So is a dead baby in a bag a fetus? Sigh. We really work overtime to avoid calling babies … babies.

It’s not just the tweet that refers to this dead baby as a fetus. Here’s the actual story it links to:

NYPD: Teen found with fetus in bag at store

NEW YORK (AP) — A security guard on the lookout for shoplifters searched two teenage girls as they left a Manhattan lingerie shop Thursday afternoon and discovered one of them was carrying a fetus in her bag, police said.

The 17-year-old girls were shopping at a Victoria’s Secret store in midtown Manhattan, said police, who were called to the scene after a guard noticed a strong odor coming from one of the bags and found the fetus. One of the girls told detectives she was carrying the human remains because she had delivered a day earlier and didn’t know what to do, authorities said. It wasn’t clear whether the fetus was alive or dead when delivered.

This is a persistent problem in the media. We saw it from the New York Times during the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. Yes, the same trial the media had to be shamed into covering. Gosnell was charged with and eventually convicted of killing babies (that is, children he delivered before snipping their spines) and not fetuses (that is, children whose spines would have been snipped while in the birth canal). And yet various journalists said he was accused of killing fetuses.

The New York Times wrote this about Gosnell:

Clinic workers who appeared as witnesses for the prosecution said some of the fetuses appeared to move or make noises. One, known as Baby D, was delivered into a toilet and appeared to make swimming motions before one of Dr. Gosnell’s assistants cut its neck, according to a worker cited during closing arguments by Edward Cameron, an assistant district attorney.

If a child is delivered into a toilet and swimming around, it is not a “fetus” appearing to move. By definition.

It’s not just the Associated Press and the New York Times. USA Today has had the same problem.

So what’s going on? Is it just an outgrowth of the media’s rather well-known advocacy in favor of abortion rights? Is it a reflexive reaction against pro-lifers, who use terms like “babies” to discuss the unborn children in a mother’s womb?

There are a few ways that using a euphemism (“a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing”) could be defended. Let’s say the young woman had an abortion and then was given the “fetus” back to carry around. Which seems unlikely, even in an era of shady abortion practices. Nothing in the story suggests that’s the case, for what it’s worth. In fact, the girl claims she delivered the baby the day prior. We’re specifically told it’s not clear whether the child was born alive or dead. But if that’s the reason the reporters and editors went with “fetus,” it’s not a great reason. Usually journalists are encouraged to avoid jargon as well as language that critics argue is biased or dehumanizing (see, for example, the Associated Press’ recent change away from “illegal immigrant”).

Should political advocacy extend to the point where you’re calling babies outside of the womb “fetuses”? If so, why?

Yes, a teenager carrying a dead baby around in a bag while she shoplifts is very difficult information to absorb. It’s difficult for those who oppose the legalized ending of unborn life in the womb and it’s difficult for those who support legal abortion. But we have to deal with reality. And calling a dead baby in a bag a “fetus” obscures more than informs.