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History: The first recorded use of the word "fetus" dates back to 1398. Before then, an unborn human was almost always referred to as a "child" (or some variation thereof). The description "with child" dates back to the twelfth century, for example, preceded by "fruit of the womb." But even up until the sixteenth century, "fetus" wasn't in common use; indeed, there's evidence that as late as 1594 people were still using "child" to refer both to the born and to the unborn. And though it's hard to tell from the record when "fetus" finally became the preferred term for the unborn, we do know that beginning in the 1970s the word took on a whole new meaning, sharply distinguishing the unborn from the born child so as to suggest that the former was not fully human. Particularly after Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973, "fetus" became a political euphemism employed by abortion advocates to deny the personhood of the human being before birth.
Etymology: "Fetus" is derived from the Latin fetus, which means "offspring." It also has Indo-European roots related to sucking or suckling. Consequently, the word should be used as a synonym for "young child." Today, however, "fetus" refers exclusively to a human who is still in the womb, though with a decidedly dehumanizing subtext. For despite the fact that during the fetal stage of development (which begins at eight weeks) all of the major structures of the human organism are already in place, including the hands, feet, head, internal organs, and brain, "fetus" is meant to connote a sort of sub- or partial humanity that falls short of actual "personhood." Thus, abortion advocates often talk about the pro-life movement's "love affair with the fetus at the expense of the born child," as if the two were distinct entities. Such semantic mis-direction was one of the consequences of the Roe decision, which solidified this supposed distinction between the born and unborn.
Effect: It is no exaggeration to say that abortion would not enjoy such widespread favor without the commandeering of the word "fetus." In order for the taking of human life to become permissible—and later legal—two things had to happen. First, the victim had to be transformed into an abstraction; those perpetrating the crime had to strip the unborn child of his humanity so that killing him could be excused. Second, the guilt of the pregnant mother had to be allayed; she had to be able to tell herself, even if uncertainly, that the life inside her was not yet human; otherwise, she might not be able to go through with the "procedure." The term "fetus" helped achieve both of these objectives, creating the misperception, via its constant repetition, that the target of abortion was something other than a child. These days, of course, abortion is considered so fundamental a right that the ruse is no longer necessary. Nevertheless, the word "fetus" will undoubtedly remain with us, if only for the sake of appearances and to keep our consciences in check. •
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