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A fœtus (or fetus in American English) is the result of the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm, which usually occurs when a female participates in sexual relations with a male of her species. Left to itself long enough, a fetus will grow into a full-blown child, unless it is aborted—naturally or induced.
The fetus has a unidirectional symbiotic relationship with the mother, living off her body often at an extreme cost to the mother in terms of nutrition, health, and in the most significant of cases, to her very life.[note 1] The mother's body is biologically programmed to supply the fetus first, herself second.
An unborn human is defined as a fetus only after week 11 (prior to that, it is an embryo), and it will spend another 29 weeks in the mother's body, securing its protection from the outside world through her womb. The fetus is attached to her body by an umbilical cord, where nutritional elements needed for the fetus' growth are passed over the uterine wall. For most of the fetus' development, the head is the biggest part (damn evolution).[note 2]
Political or agenda driven discussions often employ language games to set the stage. For discussions about the fetus in situations other than medical schools or biology classes, people are generally searching for terms to position themselves in the abortion debate.
- foetus — The use of the medically accurate term "fetus" often brings an argument from the anti-abortion crowd, saying it dehumanizes the growing baby making it easier for pregnant women and doctors to kill.
- human life — a fetus is undeniably a human life, a potential human. But insistence on this term is used to equate abortion with murder, taking the life of an independent human.
- baby — Scientifically an unborn child is not a baby. However, ask any woman who wants her child and she will speak of it as a baby. "Baby" is a politically charged term, because it is something to be protected and cherished, and when used in the abortion debate context it brings an emotional context.
- unborn — The term "unborn" carries similar weight and intentions of "baby", reinforcing that the fetus is a human, and that abortion would be akin to murder.
- parasite — On the other extreme is the term "parasite". In a scientific sense a fetus has a parasitical-like relationship with the mother. It takes energy from the mother, often at a dire cost to her, and gives nothing in return. It can be argued that it brings an emotional prize, but only if it is a wanted pregnancy. The comparison is more apparent when a woman who does not want a child is being forced by the state to carry it. The term is as equally emotionally charged, and obviously "loaded language" as the term "baby". The term necessarily dehumanizes the fetus. Some would argue this makes it easier to abort. Others find it is simply an ugly term, as parasite is generally associated with "bad" and "harmful things".
Personhood and fetal rights
In 2003, 2008 and likely 2012, Personhood Colorado" placed a measure on the Colorado State ballot to define a fetus as a person in the Colorado Constitution. The point of defining a fetus as a person is to give the fetus the full rights of a born human. Therefore, a woman would not be allowed to abort a fetus regardless of her wants or needs whether they are future needs, or immediate and emergency needs.[note 3] Of course, such a status would mean that any harm that came to the child was necessarily the mother's responsibility if not her actual fault, and if the child died, the woman would be guilty of manslaughter or potentially even murder.
At least 3 others states have some kind of "personhood" amendment in the 2012 election,[note 4] and there are active political movements in all 50 US States, the UK, Canada and Australia to get measures on to future ballots to define a fetus as a full human with full rights.
Fetal rights are slightly less overreaching than Personhood. However, they have a similar effect as far as the abortion issue goes. Generally Fetal Rights groups in the US want to see (in order of desire, and reverse order of likelihood):
- Fully outlawed abortion
- Fully outlawed abortion after 11 weeks (when it's a fetus)
- Abortions in late term limited to health of mother only
- Abortions in late term limited to health of mother or baby only
- Abortions in late term required to use anesthesia on the baby
The Anesthesia issue is a full red herring, as the nociceptive pathways for a baby to "feel pain" are not developed until long after most late-term abortions are performed, after the 26th week. As for abortions being limited to immediate health of mother (regardless of the health of the baby) several states have enacted just such laws, where at least 3 doctors must agree that a woman's life is in immediate threat. Even in cases where the baby is dying or has died, or has no brain or other abnormality that would prevent the child from surviving outside the woman, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska do not allow abortions since there is no "risk" to the mother.
Several other nations have already addressed the legal rights of fetus in their laws.
- The American Convention of Human Rights (1997) states that humans have basic rights ("to life", unstated but implied) from the moment of conception.
- Iran holds that anyone intentionally causing a miscarriage must pay a fine. It remains legally unclear how this is applied to abortion.
- The Republic of Ireland by popular referendum, recognizes the fetus' legal right to life (1983), although a referendum on this took place on May 25th, 2018 repealing it.
- The Federal Court of Germany has held that the Constitution guarantees a fetus the right to life, but they also held that parliament has the right not to punish the provider or the woman for the act of abortion (held, 1990).
- Canada legally holds that the fetus is not a full person with full rights until it has passed from the mother.
Viability of a fetus is a critical consideration in any discussion of abortion. Simply put, can the fetus survive outside of the womb? Can it survive without extreme measures outside of the womb? Most people, on considering the rights of women to have an abortion, do take this into consideration. Is the termination of a pregnancy that is four weeks along, the same as the termination of a pregnancy that is 8 months along?
Currently, the youngest baby[note 5] to survive is around the 23 week mark. Generally, less than 25% of children born in week 24 survive. Those that make it to 26 weeks (just three weeks longer)[note 6] 90% survive.
Laws based on viablity risk a unique type of "slippery slope" argument in the strangest of senses. While today, the line might clearly be drawn at the third trimester (generally beginning at 26 weeks), medical technology is getting better and better — it is not inconceivable that at some time in the near future fetuses of just 2 or 3 months might fully survive outside of the womb. If we are not careful in wording, women may lose their right to abort, simply because technology will have made it possible for the child to survive before the woman has had a chance to exercise her right to terminate.
New religious view, "The Holy Fetus"
The fetus itself has become the subject of a cult of sanctimonious religious and political fetishism surrounding the legal status of abortion. A "pro-lifer" is somebody who pulls out all stops to defend the lives of fetuses, generally claiming that this is part of a general respect for all human life. However, they often do not extend this purported respect for life to the adult (or even juvenile) members of the species; for example, a number of them have murdered abortion doctors and many support wars and capital punishment.
In the US during the 2010-2011 Congressional sessions, in a rash of anti-abortion bills that were being attached to everything coming out of the US House, the House Republicans showed how much they "loved life". Yet at the same time, they decimated funding for WIC, a program that helps pregnant women and mothers of young children get food, medical care, and education about being a parent. They cut welfare and Medicaid geared at children. They cut money to early childhood education programs, "school lunch programs" and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Children's Education programs. They attempted to deny women the right to abort if they were on drugs or addicted to drugs, yet at the same time, tried to pass laws to punish these same women for being child abusers. It is in this vein that it is argued that they "worship the Fetus" but care much less (if at all) about the actual born child.
- Pregnancy places a great biological demand upon a mother, generally from nutrition. Protein, calcium, iron and potassium are stripped from the mother's body if she is not getting proper nutrition.
- OK, so this part is totally vague, but the good stuff — the political stuff, and abortion related stuff, and controversial stuff, well, that's what Rational Wiki is for!
- Though Personhood Colorado insisted that it was obvious in the new "definition" that a woman's life would always come first, various professional medical and legal groups doubted this was so "obvious".
- Personhood USA claims there are petitions in all 50 states, for the 2012, and 2014 elections
- For what it is worth, it is the act of birth that changes a fetus into a baby, not the actual age of gestation achieved before birth.
- Yes, I know you can do that math. I was doing this for the "duh" effect of how quickly fetuses grow.
- http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/reprod/placenta/index.html Colorado State Pathopsyology
- http://www.personhoodusa.com/ Now the more aggressive, Personhood USA
- North Dakota, Iowa, Virgina for 2012
- state by state laws
- Section 233 of the Criminal Code
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