Semantics: ‘Unborn baby’ or ‘fetus’?
Last Thursday in Longmont, Colo., a drunk six-time DUI offender ran a red light and struck another car before fleeing the scene. Heather Surovik, the pregnant driver of the second car, was critically injured; her nearly full-term fetus/baby, already named Brady Paul, died.
The local media have differed in their reporting of the story, some referring to a “fetus,” some to a “baby.” A Denver Post story (by a Longmont reporter) said “unborn child” in the headline (which was probably written by a DP editor) and referred several times to the “baby.” One frustrated reader commented:
So if it’s an unborn that a woman WANTS to keep, it’s a baby … if she wishes to have an abortion it’s a fetus. Geez, people, make up your mind.
A follow-up story a few days later in the Longmont Times-Call added to the confusion. In its lede it referred to the “near-term fetus.” Then it quoted the country coroner, who spoke of the “death of a baby.” Three paragraphs later came this statement from the grieving family:
“Calling him a ‘fetus’ is offensive to our family. He was ready to be born within days and did not get that opportunity because someone that should not have been allowed to drive was behind the wheel of a vehicle.”
Finally, the reporter reverted to saying “near-term fetus” before explaining the legal issue of whether a vehicular homicide charge can or will be added to those against the drunk driver. In Colorado, it depends on whether the baby died in utero or after being born alive.
Near-term fetus. Unborn baby. Does or should the terminology matter? It mattered very much to the family eagerly anticipating the arrival of little Brady Paul. But it is always medically, scientifically, and factually correct to say “fetus.” The legally correct term would probably vary depending on the state in which the death occurred and whether that state defines human life as beginning at conception, viability, or birth. Doctors probably adjust their language for each patient, saying “baby” if the mother wants her baby and “fetus” if she is considering an abortion. The clergy, concerned with souls and religious teachings, would likely refer to an unborn “baby” or “child.” Pro-choice advocates would have to stick to “fetus” so as not to undermine their position, while pro-lifers would probably insist on “baby” from the moment of conception.
It remains a dilemma for writers who care about accuracy and impartiality and don’t want to appear biased in any way. It’s also a problem for their editors, whose job it is to enforce whatever style rules are in effect in their workplace. Ultimately, there is legal and journalistic safety in the cold neutrality of “fetus.” But there is very little compassion.
My Associated Press stylebook is 12 years old and does not address the issue at all. The closest thing I could find online was a 2009 post quoting a Q&A from the AP website that year:
Q. We reported on an accident in which a woman who was several months pregnant died and so did the unborn child. We went with ‘fetus’ but the question came up of proper usage. Should it be ‘fetus’ until born, ‘unborn child,’ or is there another locution? Thanks. — from Escondido, CA on Tue, Jan 06, 2009
A. Human fetus describes eighth week of development to birth. Unborn child usually refers to a late-stage fetus that could survive outside the womb if born prematurely.
I take this as permission to call Brady Paul Surovik an unborn child, a baby. But then, I’m not a mainstream reporter likely to be pilloried by pro-choice advocates for “selling out” or pro-lifers for “finally revealing my true beliefs.” Nor do I risk being fired by an angry editor-in-chief for violating house style. Retirement has its advantages.
(Note: For the record, I am immutably pro-choice.)
About the drunk driver:
Gary Sheats had a blood alcohol content of 0.292 percent, almost four times the legal limit, when he was arrested. He has been charged with two felony counts of vehicular assault, one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injuries, leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence, driving under the influence with a BAC greater than .08, driving under the influence with three or more prior arrests, disregarding a traffic control device, driving while driver’s license is under restraint, possession of less than one ounce marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. As mentioned above, a count of vehicular homicide may be added to these charges.
Beats me why someone like this was free to drive around endangering other people — again. A driver’s license, whether valid, revoked, under restraint, suspended, or whatever, is just a piece of paper. It cannot physically stop someone from repeatedly driving drunk. Jail can.
Update, July 12, 2012: The coroner found that the baby died in utero. As a result, under Colorado law, Sheats cannot be charged with homicide.
Update, March 13, 2013: Gary Sheats was to be sentenced next month and faced up to 20 years in prison. He was found dead in a motel room yesterday, an apparent suicide.
Update, November 2014: With strong support from Mrs. Surovik, who hoped to amend the law so that her child’s death (and any future, similar deaths) would have been declared a homicide, a “personhood” amendment was added to Colorado’s 2014 ballot. It failed to pass, as had two previous such proposals in Colorado.