Among the regulations that Bill Clinton issued in his final days as president, was one that affects our rules governing experiments on a fetus.
“Fetus” is a medical term used to describe a baby in the womb in the later stages of development. Alarm bells went off when it was discovered that the term was being applied, not to a child in utero, but to a baby after delivery.
The questionable ruling can be found in the Federal Register, Volume 66, Number 11. The 60-day hold President George W. Bush put on all of Mr. Clinton’s 11th hour regulations has been extended for this one, in order to give officials at the Department of Health and Human Services time for more evaluation.
The rule, according to the summary, is intended to “provide additional protections for pregnant women and human fetuses involved in research” and to “enhance the opportunity for participation of pregnant women in research.” It was first proposed in 1997 but escaped serious scrutiny until it had been approved by Mr. Clinton and published on Jan. 17, 2001. However, this questionable language in Sec. 46.402 (a) first appeared when the original regulations were drawn in 1975. In this HHS regulation, a fetus is defined as “the product of conception from implantation until a determination is made after delivery that it is viable.”
The attempt by the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare to redefine fetus in that way was reckless and irresponsible. It also was indefensible, morally and scientifically.
In medical terms, once a fertilized egg, which is called a zygote, begins to divide, this tiny human being is called an embryo. The embryonic stage ends at about two months’ development and the fetal stage begins as the bones begin to harden. However, once the child is born, he or she is, in medical terms, a “neonate.”
Regulators, like legislators, lawyers, political activists and journalists often tie themselves in knots when they try to apply medical terms to real life situations. Note the subtle differences in the following headlines in stories issued on March 28, 2001 by The Associated Press and Reuters: The AP announced, “House Passes Fetal Harm Bill.” Reuters proclaimed, “House Committee Approves Bill to Protect ‘Unborn.'”
In plain everyday language, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would make it a federal crime to harm a child in the womb by attacking his or her mother.
The terms zygote, embryo, fetus and neonate are useful in medical school. However, they are completely inappropriate and uncommonly cumbersome anywhere else. In “Journalism 101” reporters are taught to use plain, everyday language and we do it in every other situation. If someone is in a wreck and suffers a broken arm, the reporter doesn’t say, “The driver suffered a fractured distal radius.”
The Reuters story begins, “Injuring or killing a fetus during the commission of a violent crime against a pregnant woman. …” If the writer used the term “fetus” for the child in the womb, why not use the medical term “gravida” for pregnant woman?
The AP story was more problematic. “A House committee approved a measure that would make it a crime to hurt or kill a fetus during a violent crime against the mother. …” How can there be a mother without a child?
By tinkering with the definition of “fetus,” regulators were attempting to change the protections that exist for a human being at the time of his or her birth. In other words, they were trying to change the culture. Likewise, the use of the word fetus by pro-abortion advocates was an attempt to do the same thing by dehumanizing the child in the womb. They then shamelessly sold this word to their friends in the media who were only too happy to pass it on to the general public.
It is time for newspaper and magazine readers, TV watchers, radio listeners, and voters to tell these editors, writers, reporters, congressmen, senators and public officials to be consistent. Either a fetus is in a gravida or a child is in the womb of its mother. Personally I prefer the latter.
It’s time we insist on the use of plain everyday language that everyone can understand in the reporting of our news as well as in the writing of our laws and regulations.