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An illustration of a human fetus. It's similar to a child, except that "pro-life" people actually care about it.
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Medically approved
In the back alley
Now, is a fetus a human being? This seems to be the central question. Well, if a fetus is a human being, how come the census doesn’t count them? If a fetus is a human being, how come when there’s a miscarriage they don’t have a funeral? If a fetus is a human being, how come people say “we have two children and one on the way” instead of saying “we have three children?” People say life begins at conception, I say life began about a billion years ago and it’s a continuous process.
George Carlin, Back in Town[1]

A fœtus (or fetus in American English) is the result of the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm. Prior to the age of eleven weeks, it is called an embryo instead. Left to itself long enough, a fetus will grow into a full-blown child, unless it is aborted — naturally or induced.

Medical definition[edit]

The fetus has a unidirectional symbiotic relationship with its carrier (most people think a mother, but a trans father and nonbinary shouldn't be forgotten), living off their body often at an extreme cost to them in terms of nutrition, health, and in the most significant of cases, to their life.[note 1] The person's body is biologically programmed to supply the fetus first.

An unborn human is defined as a fetus only after week 11, and it will spend another 29 weeks in its parent's body, securing its protection from the outside world in the womb. The fetus is attached to the 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 definitions[edit]

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 people 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 person with a uterus who wants their child and they 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 its parent.[2] It takes energy from its parent, often at a dire cost, 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 person 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[edit]


See the main article on this topic: Personhood laws

In 2003, 2008, and likely 2012, Personhood Colorado[3] 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 person would not be allowed to abort a fetus regardless of their 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 person's responsibility if not their actual fault, and if the child died, the parent 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.[4]

Fetal rights[edit]

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):

  1. Fully outlawed abortion
  2. Fully outlawed abortion after 11 weeks (when it's a fetus)
  3. Abortions in late term limited to health of mother only
  4. Abortions in late term limited to health of mother or baby only
  5. 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.[5][6] As for abortions being limited to immediate health of parent (regardless of the health of the baby), several states have enacted just such laws, where at least 3 doctors must agree that a parent's life is in immediate threat.[7] 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 parent, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska do not allow abortions since there is no "risk" to the parent.

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 parent 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 parent.[8]

Unintended consequences[edit]

There are numerous corollaries to the consistent application of legal personhood for fetuses which, if followed through, would significantly change society in ways that the Religious Right and anti-abortion conservatives may not be so keen on. For example:

  • pregnant people would be able to take out life insurance on their fetuses, and collect a payout in the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth
  • pregnant people would be entitled to child support from absent partners, starting as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed
  • pregnant people would be entitled to claim tax deductions on their unborn fetuses
  • pregnant people would be entitled to drive in HOV lanes with no passengers except for their unborn fetuses[9]
  • pregnant immigrants without legal status would be immune from being deported due to carrying a citizen
  • socio-economically disadvantaged pregnant people would be entitled to food stamps for their unborn fetuses
  • people's age would be counted from the time of conception rather than birth
  • people's citizenship status would be determined by the location of conception rather than birth
  • funerals would be held for all spontaneously aborted pregnancies, including any time a fertilized egg is expelled from a person's body during their period
  • fetuses would be counted in the census

By themselves, these corollaries do not constitute an argument that fetuses are not human beings. However, they do constitute a touchstone for whether a jurisdiction banning abortion on the grounds of fetal personhood has any claim to being consistent or genuine.


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 cis women and trans men 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. Of 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, people may lose their right to abort, simply because technology will have made it possible for the child to survive before the person has had a chance to exercise their right to terminate.

New religious view, "The Holy Fetus"[edit]

For more information, see: Consistent life ethic

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 trans men and parents 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 people 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 people 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.

See also[edit]


  1. Pregnancy places a great biological demand, generally from nutrition. Protein, calcium, iron, and potassium are stripped from the person's body if they are not getting proper nutrition.
  2. 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!
  3. Though Personhood Colorado insisted that it was obvious in the new "definition" that this parent's life would always come first, various professional medical and legal groups doubted this was so "obvious".
  4. Personhood USA claims there are petitions in all 50 states, for the 2012, and 2014 elections.
  5. 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.
  6. Yes, I know you can do that math. I was doing this for the "duh" effect of how quickly fetuses grow.