Are Fetus and Unborn Child Interchangeable?
Guidance from Rewire.News and the 2018 Associated Press Stylebook.
By Steve Bien-Aimé • June 13, 2018
Journalists play real roles in how we view reproductive rights, and in this highly political climate, language leaders have renewed the focus on journalists’ word choices when discussing pregnancy.
In the 2018 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook, the editors created a new entry for embryo, fetus, unborn baby, unborn child. The previous entries for fetus and embryo focused on the medical distinction between the two, entries that AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke called “extremely minimal.” The new entry explains, “While the terms are essentially interchangeable in many common uses,” fetus “is preferred in many cases” to describe the post-embryo stage of human development up till birth. The entry also provides flexibility in that “the context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases where fetus could seem clinical or cold.” Not offering “an absolute directive” was intentional, Froke said, because these issues require nuance and not a one-size-fits-all policy.
Not offering “an absolute directive” was intentional, Froke said, because these issues require nuance and not a one-size-fits-all policy.
Froke said that the change occurred in part because Associated Press reporters sought guidance. Looking at the current journalistic scene, there is much ambiguity with terminology. A quick Google search of recent stories reveals that journalists sometimes use fetus and unborn child interchangeably in the same article. WJBF-TV in Georgia reported:
An autopsy is being performed Friday, May 11 on a fetus found Monday.
The unborn child was discovered by maintenance workers . . . .
The coroner believes the fetus was about 20 weeks along.
(All bold-face emphasis is mine.)
The Oklahoman also alternated between the two terms:
A pregnant 18-year-old woman lost the unborn child she was carrying after a Thursday crash . . . .
Thurlo lost the fetus on Friday, troopers said.
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage focuses more on language regarding abortion, and the reporting reflects the lack of clear guidance. In a May story about Iowa’s new law on reproductive rights, The New York Times used fetus:
Other states, including North Dakota and Arkansas, have passed similarly prohibitive measures restricting abortion and have seen them swiftly voided by the courts as unconstitutional. Supreme Court decisions have given women a right to abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy, and some states have enacted bans of abortions after 20 weeks.
When a death is unexpected or criminal in nature, journalists tend to grant personhood.
But in describing the victims of a 2017 mass shooting, the Times granted personhood by using unborn baby:
All three were among the 26 people killed when Devin P. Kelley opened fire on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., according to a list released Wednesday by the state of Texas. The official list includes a pregnant victim’s unborn baby.
Thus, one basis for the fluid word choice might be that when a death is unexpected or criminal in nature, journalists tend to grant personhood. In another example, child is used in the lede to a 2017 story about a fatal car accident:
A Dallas firefighter charged with one count of intoxication manslaughter after he was involved in an off-duty crash that killed a pregnant teenager and her unborn child has been released on bond.
This is not to single out any particular news outlet. Rather, these examples demonstrate the tricky nature of parsing matters of personhood.
Perhaps a reason for the inconsistency rests with dictionary definitions, though most modern dictionaries are descriptivist; that is, they chronicle common usage.
U.S. legislators grant personhood in criminal matters, too. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have “fetal homicide” laws, though the group is quick to note the political ramifications of designating a crime against a pregnant person versus a crime against the entity within the pregnant person.
Perhaps a reason for the inconsistency rests with dictionary definitions, though most modern dictionaries are descriptivist; that is, they chronicle common usage. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of baby is “an extremely young child; especially : infant”; however, child encompasses both baby and fetus: “an unborn or recently born person.” The American Heritage Dictionary’s second sense for child is “an unborn infant; a fetus,” and its first sense for baby includes “an unborn child; a fetus.”
Analyzing how journalists influence ideas of personhood ranks high for Rewire.News’s vice presidents and managing editors Regina Mahone and Kat Jercich. Mahone said that people trend toward “disassociating a person who’s pregnant from their pregnancy.” They both caution journalists that their word choices help shape cultural ideas, which in turn could influence legislation, including reproductive rights and homicide laws. Mahone advised journalists to avoid saying “Pregnant Person and Unborn Child Die” in headlines when “Pregnant Person Dies” expresses the same idea. In addition, Jercich said that “harm might not be evident” in constructions such as unborn baby in headlines, but it could be interpreted as “shaming people who choose to have an abortion.” The Rewire.News style guide—which Mahone and Jercich made available during their “Mother or Pregnant Person? Why Words Matter When Covering Reproductive Rights” presentation at the national ACES: The Society for Editing convention (ACES 2018)—says to use baby “only when referring to a newborn child, unless a writer uses it in a commentary referring to their personal story or in a quote.”
Have a newsroom conversation and listen to various stakeholders. Because each story is unique, a blanket approach won’t work.
So what is my style recommendation? Have a newsroom conversation and listen to various stakeholders. Because each story is unique, a blanket approach won’t work. While the Rewire.News guideline differs from that of the Associated Press, style editors from each organization encourage journalists to be as informed as possible on such an important and controversial topic. When it comes to conscious editing, being informed and knowledgeable will help you present stories that minimize harm and maximize respect.
Steve Bien-Aimé is an assistant professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University. Before receiving his doctorate from Penn State’s College of Communications, Steve worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun and served in a variety of functions at FOXSports.com, departing as deputy NFL editor. His research interests include race and gender portrayals in news and sports media.