Fetus? Well, not this time

It always amazes me how many religious concepts and themes have become embedded in our nation's ongoing debates about abortion. Truth is, it's impossible for the mainstream media to avoid these religious entanglements because they have soaked into the language used in these events, debates, laws and court cases. Consider, for example, arguments about the language that journalists use to describe unborn children.

Some journalists insist that the proper term is always "fetus," because this is the scientific and, thus, neutral and objective term. Thus, it is the journalistic word to use.

My venerable copy of the Associated Press Stylebook does not take a stand on this issue. However I have heard journalists say that their own newsrooms had written "fetus" into their local style manual.

In addition to "fetus" being scientific, many journalists have argued that it is impossible to use terms such as "unborn child" or even "baby" because these words assume a specific stance on an issue that is rooted in religious doctrine -- the question of "ensoulment." In other words, it is an act of faith -- not science -- to say when a child becomes fully human. Yet, note that religious faith is involved the second that people involved in this debate begin discussing the human soul. Period.

The reason that I am mentioning this is because, in the past year or so, I noticed that more journalists are loosening up on some of these issues and starting to use the language that actual human beings use when discussing these issues. At the very least, journalists are starting to mix these terms in their copy. Consider this New York Times lede:

For years, surgeons have been trying to find ways of operating on babies in the womb, reasoning that medical abnormalities might be more easily fixed while a fetus is still developing. But with tremendous risks to babies and mothers, and a mixed record of success, fetal surgery is mostly used when babies are likely to die otherwise.

Yes, you read that right -- one "fetus" reference and three references to "babies."

Now we have the potentially tragic case in Colorado of a pharmacist's mistake that may result in the tragic end of a pregnancy. Here is the Associated Press lede, as used by National Public Radio:

A pregnant Colorado woman mistakenly given an abortion drug by a pharmacist faces an excruciating wait to find out the fate of her unborn child.

A Denver television station posted this variation online:

FT. LUPTON, Colo. -- She is six weeks pregnant and when she went to the pharmacy to pick up an antibiotic her doctor had prescribed, the pharmacist gave her an abortion drug by mistake. Mareena Silva might lose her unborn child because of the prescription drug error. ... .

"For all this to happen now is really overwhelming," said Silva. "This is my first child, so it's really difficult to deal with." ...

Doctors are checking Silva's bloodwork to make sure her hormone levels are OK. She could miscarry, carry the child to full-term with severe birth defects or she could have a happy, healthy baby.

You can see the basic problem. When talking about these issues, "fetus" is the kind of term that is used by lawyers, legislators and scientists (usually on one side of the abortion debate). Meanwhile, ordinary people tend to say "child," "unborn child" or even "baby." What is a journalist supposed to do? No matter what newsrooms decide, one side or the other is going to be ticked off.

Readers, what are you seeing in your local media? A consistent use of one term or this new mix of the scientific and, well, the language of the people? What do you think should be in the Associated Press Stylebook, if anything?

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