When Is a Royal Baby a Fetus?

Technically, right up until the moment he's born. And yet we've called him a baby the whole time. What media coverage of the recent pregnancy and birth has to do with abortion politics.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Images

Moral philosopher James Q. Wilson wrote that humanity “has a moral sense.” Whether that moral sense is grounded in evolution, the image of God, or some other foundation, it sometimes leads us to act better than we speak. There are surprising moments, in other words, when our pre-conscious emotional and moral wiring responds to a situation in a way our more studied judgments would not permit. A usually callous employee comforts a just-fired coworker in genuine sympathy. A man who hasn’t acted chivalrously in all his days instinctively holds a door open for a pregnant woman. A teenager roaming in one of those teenage-mall herds apologizes to a passer-by whom her friends have just mocked.

This week, as the U.K.’s Prince William and Kate Middleton were expecting their child at any moment, the impending birth received a galaxy’s worth of media coverage. That the child would be heir to the throne was a motivating factor in all this attention, to be sure. I was interested not only for this reason but for a less-noticed one: Countless media reports bore news about the “royal baby.”

Why was this noteworthy? Because this term, to get exegetical for a moment, was not used to describe the future state of the child—once born and outside of the womb, that is. No, the American media used this phrase “royal baby” to describe the pre-born infant. It’s not strange for leading pro-life thinkers like Eric Metaxas and Denny Burk to refer to a fetus as a “baby.” It's not strange, either, for people to refer to a child they're expecting as a "baby," regardless of where they stand on the issue of abortion. It is strange, though, for outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post and Boston Globe--which purport to be neutral on the issue--to use this seemingly explosive phrase without so much as a qualification. And why is this strange? Because it codes a pro-life position into their description of the unborn child.

I am a Christian who believes deeply in the sanctity of life, so for me, this language choice is revealing. The two most common arguments made today by thoughtful pro-choicers  are as follows: a) the being in the womb has no distinct personhood when in the mother’s body, as it is only a fetus and not yet a person (as seen in this ruling of a 2004 Houston court), or b) the fetus has some hard-to-define measure of personhood, yes, but a sufficient degree less personhood than the mother such that the mother may conscionably, though sometimes painfully terminate it (as in this New York Times essay). The linchpin of both of these arguments is location, closely related to dependence. If the fetus is born, it is outside the womb and relatively independent of the mother. If the fetus is unborn, it is inside the womb, part of the mother’s body, and therefore dependent on the mother and subject to her decisions.

These arguments—which really are basically one and the same—have persuaded many people. The result, virtually enshrined into media law, is this: Pre-born beings are to be called fetuses, and post-birth beings are to be called babies. Here’s the New York Times referring to aborted babies as fetuses in the Kermit Gosnell trial, for example; NPR follows the same logic, as does CNN. Fetuses, it seems, are essentially subhuman. Outside of the mainstream media, the rhetoric builds from this impersonal foundation. Not only are pre-born children subhuman; they are considered “clumps of cells,” in fact, or pre-human "seeds." In both the mainstream media and the pro-abortion movement, fetuses are future humans being knit together in a woman’s body. They are not humans while in the womb. To kill them is not to kill a human, but something not-yet human.

How strange was it, then, that leading news sources referred to the fetus of William and Kate as the “royal baby.” There were no pre-birth headlines from serious journalistic sources like “Royal Clump of Cells Eagerly Anticipated” or “Imperial Seed Soon to Sprout.” None of the web’s traffic-hoarding empires ran “Subhuman Royal Fetus Soon to Become Human!” No, over and over again, one after another, from the top of the media food chain to the bottom, Kate’s “fetus” was called, simply and pre-committedly, a baby. Why was this? Because, as I see it, the royal baby was a baby before birth. The media was right; gloriously, happily right.

Like all babies-in-womb, in the months before Kate gave birth, the royal heir was spinning around, jabbing mom at inopportune moments, reacting in sheer physical bliss to the soothing sounds of dad’s voice, getting hungry, becoming sad and even agitated when voices were raised in marital conflict, sleeping, sucking its thumb, enjoying certain kinds of music, waking mom up in the night in order to do more spinning around/kicking, and eating hungrily what mom ate.

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Owen Strachan is a professor of theology and history at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel and writes here.

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