The word fetus causes infanticide?

Slate's William Saletan says it's dangerous for pregnant women to avoid using the word "baby"

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published June 19, 2009 12:01PM (EDT)

Imagine that you're an actor at a casting call. You've just been handed a script to read from, but there are just a scant eight words on the page. No context, no character description, just the words: "I'm pregnant! The fetus is six weeks along." So, you ask yourself: Is my character happy about this news? Is it the answer to all her prayers? Or is the pregnancy a mistake? Is she contemplating an abortion? Your head's spinning with all of the possible scenarios, because you simply can't tell for sure how the woman feels about her pregnancy.

Unless you're Slate's William Saletan, that is. In his latest column, the king of contrarians argues that it's dangerous for pregnant women to avoid using the word "baby" when talking about what's inside their uterus. Words like "embryo" and "fetus" allow for dissociation from their growing baby, he argues. The potential result of this denial? Infanticide. 

Seriously. He actually starts the article with the question: "How could anyone kill her own newborn child?" Then he makes the generalizing declaration that pregnant women who want a child use the word baby. (Obviously he's never spoken to a woman who's had a series of miscarriages and is refraining from thinking of the fetus as a baby, her baby, because she can't stand to lose one more baby.) On the other hand, "those who don't want to be pregnant and are seeking or contemplating abortion avoid that word," he continues. "Given the same thing at the same stage of development, we see what we want to see: a child if we want a child, an unformed embryo if we don't." You can practically see Saletan smirking, while shaking his head: Silly humans.

Then, things get gravely serious. He tells a story he believes to be relevant to this discussion: That of Véronique Courjault, a woman on trial in France for killing three of her newborns, setting one on fire and burying it in her garden, and suffocating two and stuffing them in her freezer. He then concludes: "This is the danger of denying that what you're carrying is a developing baby." Sometimes the denial extends "all the way to birth or even beyond it." Once a pregnant woman is gripped by "the mentality of denial," he says, there is "no telling where that ends" -- only that sometimes it ends with your newborn in the freezer.

As an armchair psychiatrist, I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence that Courjault isn't a woman who simply used the wrong noun during her pregnancies. But, as an amateur Web surfer, a quick Google search allows me to tell you that pregnancy denial, very plausibly what she experienced, is a major influencing factor in the killing of babies shortly after birth. It's important to note, though, that when psychiatrists talk about pregnancy denial, they mean denial of the pregnancy, not a preference for words that abstract the personhood of the fetus. It isn't an issue of avoiding the word baby while contemplating an abortion. Even if they notice their stomach growing, feel something rattling around in their belly or actually know on some remote level that they're pregnant, these women maintain a cognitive dissonance that allows them to functionally block it out. They often end up at the hospital complaining of intestinal pain and, to their shock, deliver a baby. (No, those aren't just urban legends you've heard.)

It seems to me that Saletan is irresponsibly conflating pregnancy denial with philosophical beliefs about abortion and fetuses' personhood. A woman who is considering an abortion can maintain a minor level of disconnection from the fetus, refuse to call it a baby and yet still be able to acknowledge that there is life there. She can do all of this even after having an ultrasound, as Saletan instructs women to do. It's more complicated than willing herself to see only what she wants to see: People have very different scientific, philosophical, political and religious ideas about when a fetus becomes a baby or a person. Couples often have very different independent experiences of a pregnancy's "realness," and early on in a pregnancy, so much of the significance of the word baby is parental projection. But Saletan assumes that his definition of personhood is The Truth with which women must reckon.

When he writes early on in the piece, that this "subjective mentality " -- the kind of abstract thinking he believes women must engage in to justify their abortions -- can extend throughout the pregnancy and even after birth, he's warning that some women can't afford that early ambiguity, because it can spread like a virus throughout their bodies. His underlying message: One moment you think you're merely considering whether you want to abort the pea-sized clump of cells in your uterus, the next you're that evil lady on the news who suffocated her newborn. Beware!

I've always thought the logo for Saletan's column, Human Nature, is weirdly apt. It features a cartoon man who is awkwardly and unnaturally bent forward with a weird hip-hand reaching toward his mouth. I like to see it as a symbol of the rhetorical contortions Saletan performs in hopes of getting pro-choice liberals to cave to his point of view. But, more and more, I think the caricature should be twisted in a more extreme manner. Perhaps into a human pretzel.

Update: Several helpful readers have pointed out that I misinterpreted the Human Nature logo. It actually shows a man holding his decapitated head away from his body. In that case, I take it back, the logo is perfect as is.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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