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.

Thoughts for Both Sides of the Abortion Debate
How, if at all, does this “royal baby” phenomenon impact the current cultural debate over abortion? Here are a few thoughts for both sides of the abortion debate, pro-life and pro-choice alike.

First, for pro-lifers, this event can serve as a reminder that human development is a process. There is a definite point at which a baby’s heart starts beating (roughly six weeks), and Kate’s child was surely able to do far more in the late stages of her pregnancy than in the early stages. It should be clear to all that the child is not independent in the womb, and that a one-month-old baby-in-womb has very different capabilities than a post-born baby. Pro-life rhetoric should not outstrip reality, as in the heat of the moment it sometimes can. This is not to deny the inherent personhood of a conceived child; it is to note that fetal development is medically obvious and a part of every child’s narrative.

Second, for pro-lifers, this event speaks to the happiness of bringing a child into a secure home. William and Kate are married. They have means, furthermore. They can buy not only clothes for their son, but the finest clothes; not only food, but the best food. This is not the case for a good number of women who make the choice to abort their children. They find out they are pregnant, they see the two little stripes on the home test, and their heart drops. They don’t know what to do; they have no help from the man who impregnated them; they already work tirelessly, raise children, and have precious little in the bank. Though every life is precious, some are imperiled from the start.

Now let’s turn this around.

First, for pro-choicers, the journalistic reaction to the royal baby may be a witness unto life. If the royal baby was not a clump of cells, then neither is anyone else’s baby. Children, as the Christian tradition has argued from the Bible, possess inherent dignity and worth (Genesis 1; Psalm 139). Many religious groups concur. If this is true, then abortion is not good.

Second, for pro-choicers, this strange cultural moment is a reminder that dependence does not mean unhumanness. The child of William and Kate will need assistance to live for many days, months, and even years yet. If the standard of personhood is unaided independence, then the royal couple do not have a son even now. They still have a clump of cells. When the child is ten, or maybe 12, he will be able to care for himself at a rudimentary level without the assistance of others and the presence of his parents, especially his mother.

Independence and location are not and cannot be the markers of personhood, in other words. If this is so, then our elderly loved ones are not people; our handicapped brothers and sisters are subhuman; our depressed and despairing friends, whom we must diligently and self-sacrificially care for, have ceased to exist. But all this is not so. To be human, in fact, is to be anything but independent, whether one thinks of the benefits of family members, friends, spouses--and perhaps, persons unseen yet powerfully perceived.

What's Next?
Wilson judged rightly when he said that humanity has a moral sense. But his epigram did not end there. In his famous book The Moral Sense, Wilson went on: “Mankind has a moral sense, but much of the time its reach is short and its effect uncertain.” This second part of this classic formulation is as important as the first. We all err in many ways. Furthermore, it is not clear what will become of our morality even when we intuit what is right and wrong. It may be, in the case of the “royal baby,” that a few folks will recognize the ironic nature of the media’s coverage. A good number of those who do, however, won’t necessarily care.

But in a society that has moved to a stunning degree away from pro-choice identification and toward some form of pro-life conviction, it may also be that the American moral sense, short as its reach is, uncertain as its effects are, will, after much travail and division, shelter the babies that now spin, kick, and play in their mother’s wombs.

Whether royal or unroyal, they are just that, after all: babies.