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 Oxford English Dictionary 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.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?