Are pro-lifers wrong to speak of the “unborn child”? A reader annoyed with Ramesh Ponnuru’s use of the phrase wrote him, saying, “There is no child until birth. Late in pregnancy the fetus may have some moral status but it is still not a child.”
Ramesh replied: “Merriam-Webster’s first definition of ‘child’ is ‘an unborn or recently born person.’ The phrase ‘with child’ long pre-dates our controversies over abortion. The etymology refers to the Gothic kilthei (womb) and inkiltko (pregnant).” Which go back yet further to the Proto-Indo-European *g(‘)elt- (womb).
If there’s anything wrong with “unborn child,” it’s the redundancy of the modifier. To call a child unborn insists on what is already the first definition of the word.
The OED is especially emphatic on this point. It offers, “the unborn or newly born human being; fœtus, infant” as the primary definition, then goes on to say, “When the application was subsequently extended, the primitive sense was often expressed by babe, baby, infant; but ‘child’ is still the proper term, and retained in phrases, as ‘with child’, ‘to have a child’, ‘child-birth’, the verb to child, etc.”
According to the OED, child—not fetus, not pregnancy, not “choice”—is the proper term for an unborn human. Writers and editors take note.