By, Laura Cofsky

The conversation around abortion has been largely focused on the question of personhood and when a fetus becomes a person. Yet, in light of some recent news items, maybe we should instead be asking, what is a fetus?

Here is my attempt to define “fetus,” with regards to our current legal and social cultures.

A fetus is a form of evidence. According to New Mexico House Bill 206, babies can be used in rape cases as a form of evidence. In these cases, if the rape victim were to abort the fetus, the victim would be charged with a third-degree felony for tampering with evidence.[1]

Rep. Cathryn Brown, who’s spearheading the bill, claims that the goal of the bill is to punish rapists and those who commit incest by making it more difficult to destroy evidence.

Meanwhile, rape victims who seek abortions risk imprisonment and tarnished legal records. Where are her rights? It’s not the victim’s fault that her womb is a piece of evidence.

In some cases, a fetus is an “inappropriate” claimant in wrongful death suits. When Lori Stoghill filed a suit against the Catholic St. Thomas Moore Hospital for what he believed to be the wrongful death of his wife and the two twins she was about to birth, Catholic Health Initiatives told him he didn’t have grounds to sue for his post-viability twins. [2]

Catholic Health Initiatives, which runs the hospital, explained that unborn people aren’t technically “persons” under Colorado law.

That’s funny: I thought the Catholic Church was against abortions because fetuses are people. By this logic, fetuses are persons, but in-utero babies are not. I’m scratching my head at this one.

Meanwhile, both the mother and her twins are dead.

Which brings me to one more definition: a fetus is a legal loophole. You can define one however you’d like, as long as it serves your or your institution’s goals.

Oh yeah, the women who carry these fetuses are supposed to factor into this somehow, somewhere. Maybe.

Fetuses are a political wedge. Fetuses are the victims that the evil mothers murder. Fetuses are the criminals that deprive rape and incest victims of their lives and health. Fetuses are the products of a very complicated, miraculous equation that leave both scientists and religious leaders in awe.

Apparently, this has nothing to do with women or with mothers. This is not about babies or health or life or death. It’s all just legality.

I’m not debating the morality of abortions, although I have my own opinion about them. But I’m concerned that we’re shaping it’s definition with absolutely no regard for the other people and entities involved.

We’re leaving fetuses out of the discussion about fetuses.

What’s disturbing about the current discourse is that the mother’s body has simply become a legal vehicle. In all these cases, she is either the carrier of a mini-crime scene, a liability or an obstacle.

I once read an article comparing a mother’s body to that of an organ donor. When carrying an infant, her body expends a lot of energy, nutrients and other resources for the developing fetus, resources that, one way or another, have been diverted from other organs in the mother’s body.

When we objectify the fetus into a piece of evidence that criminalizes the mother or exclude a post-viability baby from legal rights, we are actually objectifying the mother. When we commit all these oversights, we’re neglecting to appreciate everything the mother has given up.

Because even today, carrying and giving birth to a baby is both risky and dangerous.

But here’s a problem: once we come up with a concrete, universal definition for the fetus, many of the entities involved could be left disenfranchised. No matter what we do, to define the term “fetus” is to place someone onto a sacrificial altar. Often, women are the ones who suffer.

I’m not here to justify any one definition, or to introduce my own definition for the word. I just want to point out that we need to have a better understanding of its intricacies, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.

If nothing else, we need to develop this understanding for the mother’s sake.

Laura Cofsky is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English literature. Upon graduation, she hopes to become a journalist.


[1] Laura Basset, “New Mexico Bill Could Criminalize Abortions After Rape as ‘Tampering with Evidence,’” Huffington Post 24 Jan. 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/24/new-mexico-abortion-bill_n_2541894.html

[2] Erin Gloria Ryan, “Catholic Hospital Conveniently Claims Fetuses Aren’t People in Malpractice Lawsuit,” Jezebel 24 Jan. 2013. http://jezebel.com/abortion/

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