My medical professionals were willing to use inaccurate scientific terms when it served their purpose, and I wasn't having it.
I got my weekly automated email this morning, congratulating me, “Week 8 is a big week; you’re no longer carrying an embryo, you’re carrying a fetus!”
Pregnancy literature loves to make a big deal about all the stages of life the baby passes through. I don’t have a problem with this. Reproduction, besides being sacred, is also a physical process describable by scientific terminology. Science has a language for all the stages of development of life: zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus, infant, toddler, teenager, and adult are all just phases. Whether or not you’re opposed to abortion, there’s nothing wrong with the terms themselves.
So I was not offended when my obstetrician referred to my unborn baby as an fetus. She’s not pro-life, but maybe she just wants to be specific. I was, however, extremely angry when she called my child a baby later on. Let me explain.
I miscarried in January, when the child was 8 weeks old. While I was pregnant, my doctor’s language was joyfully imprecise. She knew how happy I was, and we both eagerly listened to the “baby’s” heartbeat. After his death, although he had passed the stage to be called a fetus, the ultrasound tech, who knew the scientific term perfectly well, would only refer to him as an embryo. The doctor could only use the word “tissue.” They were intentionally using scientifically inaccurate language in a bid to comfort me.
I’m pregnant again. Because the baby is alive, because I am happy, the doctor has been willing to call my son or daughter a baby, not a fetus. She means well, but here’s the thing. “Baby” isn’t strictly a scientific word; it has real emotional connotations. It brings with it the image of chubby cheeks, tiny fingers, and everything else a mother is hoping for. So if you are only willing to call my child a baby when a) you’re positive I want him to live, and b) you’re sure he’s healthy, then we have a problem. You don’t have the right to insist on correct scientific terminology only when it suits your emotional needs, and not otherwise. You either use it, or you don’t.
The day I almost died in childbirth
With my first miscarriage, the moment something went wrong with the pregnancy, my doctors’ word choices changed noticeably. At first, I thought they were trying to be more scientific — nobody was going to say the word “baby” much less “child.” But they were also willing to use the wrong terms, if the scientific term seemed too emotionally charged. Fetus was demoted to embryo, which was demoted to tissue. They were trying to be comforting. But they were being neither accurate, honest, or consistent.
You may call my child a baby only if you’re not going to take it back later on, if something goes wrong.
I’m not trying to make a larger point about the state of modern medicine in America or anything like that. But I want to call out hypocrisy where I see it. Science is supposed to be the most empirically objective, impartial source of knowledge we have, and yet, my medical professionals are willing to use inaccurate scientific terms when it serves their purpose, whether they’re trying to help a grieving mother stop crying, or whether they’re trying to make her feel better about the abnormal results of the baby’s genetic testing.
It’s not even just about holding our medical professionals to a standard of basic consistency, either. For me, it’s important to notice these subtle patterns, because if I am going to stand for the sanctity of life in this culture of death, I need to notice the little ways that language is misused in the service of the pro-choice ideology, if only to put me on my guard.
The next time I saw that doctor, she wanted to know whether I’d like genetic testing for the baby. I declined, but she asked me three more times, and slipped the pamphlets in anyway, just in case. She explained that “if the unthinkable happens,” and they find a chromosomal abnormality, I’d want to know, so I’d have time to “make the choice to terminate.”
I stood up and walked out of the office, and I won’t be going back. I’m angry, but not surprised, because after the little ways in which she and her staff had been misusing objective medical terms, I saw this attitude coming a mile away.