The end of the fetus

“Fetus” is a perfectly good word–don’t we need a a word for “prenatal baby”?–but I suspect that it won’t exist much longer in the popular consciousness.  It may survive as medical terminology, but that’s it.  I’m basing this on the experience my wife and I have acquired with the Ob-Gyn profession over these past months, in particular how doctors talk to their patients.

When a woman goes to the gynecologist after seeing the “+” on her home pregnancy test, she has one of two conditions.  She may have a “baby”, or she may have a “pregnancy”.  When my wife and I went to the doctor the first time after our “+”, one of the first things they asked us was, “Is this a planned pregnancy?”  After we said “yes”, things were pretty much set.  My wife had a “baby” in her; no one would have ever thought to tell her she had a “fetus” gestating.  Doctors talked about the baby; ultrasound technicians gave us print-outs with “baby” labels on them.  The only time my wife had a “pregnancy” was when they talked to us about prenatal genetic testing.  They like to have these tests done even though they can’t cure any of these genetic diseases.  Thinking aloud, I said that it might be good to have time to prepare for an especially needy child.  The midwife chimed in with, “Also, some couples choose to terminate the pregnancy.”  That was the first time I heard this word “pregnancy” described as if it were a thing, rather than the fetus being the thing and pregnancy being the mother’s relationship to it.  Nobody nowadays terminates a fetus, much less a baby.  We only terminate pregnancies.

One day, while my wife and I were in the waiting room, another pregnant woman came in, walked up to the receptionist, and explained her situation in a carefree, jocular tone:  “I’m here because the doctor said my pregnancy might not be viable.  We’re going to find out for sure now.  If the pregnancy isn’t viable, I’m going to get it terminated.  No point in throwing up every morning for no reason, eh?”  The receptionist laughed and said “I don’t blame you”.  I think my wife and I, while pretending not to notice, both turned pale.  It’s not the contemplated murder that I found so disturbing.  It was the casualness of it.  This woman was in a horrifying position–her baby condemned to die before or soon after birth.  If she had come in distraught and announced that she wanted to put her poor doomed baby out of his misery, that would still have been morally problematic, but at least it would have acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.

What makes this ghoulish casualness possible is the rhetorical trick of saying that what a woman has is not a baby, or a fetus, or even a meaningless “lump of tissue”, but rather a “pregnancy”.  That’s all we’re ending, right, just a pregnancy?  And pregancies always “terminate” eventually anyway, right?  Either in the delivery room or the abortion clinic, it’s all the same as far as the state of pregnancy is concerned.  Nobody could be concerned to defend the rights of a “pregnancy”.

So there we are.  The word “fetus” is going to go off the market for lack of demand.  Every pregnant woman who comes to the doctor has her heart set on either birth or murder.  Either way, they don’t want to hear about fetuses.

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