When is a baby not a baby?

If a child is delivered into a toilet and swimming around, it is not a “fetus” appearing to move. By definition.

It’s not just the Associated Press and the New York Times. USA Today has had the same problem.

So what’s going on? Is it just an outgrowth of the media’s rather well-known advocacy in favor of abortion rights? Is it a reflexive reaction against pro-lifers, who use terms like “babies” to discuss the unborn children in a mother’s womb?

There are a few ways that using a euphemism (“a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing”) could be defended. Let’s say the young woman had an abortion and then was given the “fetus” back to carry around. Which seems unlikely, even in an era of shady abortion practices. Nothing in the story suggests that’s the case, for what it’s worth. In fact, the girl claims she delivered the baby the day prior. We’re specifically told it’s not clear whether the child was born alive or dead. But if that’s the reason the reporters and editors went with “fetus,” it’s not a great reason. Usually journalists are encouraged to avoid jargon as well as language that critics argue is biased or dehumanizing (see, for example, the Associated Press’ recent change away from “illegal immigrant”).

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