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What shall we call the unborn in the womb?

If the entity is a living thing, is it not a life? If your person began as a single cell, how can that fertilized egg be something other than a human being? Isn’t it more accurate to say you were an embryo than that you simply came from one?

So when does a human being have a right to life?

Shall we say size matters? Is the unborn child too small to deserve our protection? Are big people more valuable than little people? Are men more human than women? Do offensive linemen have more rights than jockeys? Is the life in the womb of no account because you can’t hold him in our arms, or put him in your hands, or only see her on a screen?

Shall we make intellectual development and mental capacity the measure of our worth? Are 3-year-old children less valuable than 13-year-olds? Is the unborn child less than fully human because he cannot speak or count or be self-aware? Does the cooing infant in the crib have to smile or shake your hand or recite the alphabet before she deserves another day? If an expression of basic mental acuity is necessary to be a full-fledged member of the human community, what shall we do with the comatose, the very old, or the 50-year-old mom with Alzheimer’s? And what about all of us who sleep?

Shall we deny the unborn child’s right to life because of where he lives? Can environment give us value or take it away? Are we worth less inside than outside? Can we be justly killed when we swim under water? Does where we are determine who we are? Does the eight-inch journey down the birth canal make us human? Does this change of scenery turn “its” into persons? Is love a condition of location?

Shall we reserve human dignity only for those humans who are not dependent on others? Do we deserve to live only when we can live on our own? Is the 4-month-old fetus less than human because she needs her mom for life? Is the 4-month-old infant less than human when she still needs her mom for life? What if you depend on dialysis or insulin or a breathing apparatus? Is value a product of fully functioning vitality? Is independence a prerequisite for human identity? Are we worth only what we can think, accomplish, and do on our own?

If the unborn life is human life, what can justify snuffing it out? Would it be right to take the life of your child on his first birthday because he came to you through sad and tragic circumstances? Would you push an 18-month-old into traffic because she makes our life difficult? Does a 3-year-old deserve to die because we think we deserve a choice?

What do you deserve now? What are your rights as a human person? Did you have those same rights five years ago? What about before you could drive? Or when you used training wheels? Were you less than fully human when you played in the sandbox? When you wore a bib? When you nursed at your mother’s breast? When your dad cut your cord? When you tumbled in that watery mess and kicked against that funny wall? When your heart pounded on the monitor for the first time? When you grew your first fingernails? When you grew your first cells?

What shall we call the child in the womb? A fetus? A mystery? A mistake? A wedge issue? What if science and Scripture and common sense would have us call it a person? What if the unborn child, the messy infant, the wobbly toddler, the rambunctious teenager, the college freshman, the blushing bride, the first-time mother, the working woman, the proud grammy, and the demented old friend differ not in kind but only in degree? Where in the progression does our humanity begin and end? Where does life become valuable? When are we worth something? When do human rights become our rights? What if Dr. Seuss was right and a person’s a person no matter how small?

Why celebrate the right to kill what you once were? Why deny the rights of the little one who is what you are?

This piece was also published a few years ago, under a different title, at Desiring God.

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11 thoughts on “What Shall We Call the Unborn?”

  1. J_Bob says:

    Excellent Article!!!!
    Thank You.

  2. Curt Day says:

    Obvously, an unborn child is an individual human life. The title of personhood is a bit self-congratulatory since that stauts is reseerved for after the baby’s personality has started to develop after our interaction with it.

    But we should remember that the terms people use for the unborn child depend on the possible conflict of interest these terms raise–again, it is about ourselves. And we should note that not all who would deny equal human status to the unborn child suffer the same conflict of interest. The conflict for some is fear that one does not have the ability to care for the child. The conflict for others is personal freedom. While the conflict those not in the first two groups is greed or the love of comfort. But here we should note that we all suffer those conflicts of interests for those who are already born when it comes to deciding what personal and societal acts of compassion we will participate in or support.

    The above makes some very good points in defense of the unborn. But we need to realize that understanding those points is only part of the battle in persuading people to oppose elective abortion. We must deal with the different conflicts of interest people who support the right to elective abortions have.

  3. chief1937 says:

    The unborn are human at the moment of conception and should haved the same rights as the rest of us humans however given the present ideas I think the best word to describe some of them is DOOMED.

  4. Alice Searcy says:

    In 2015, my daughter went through a difficult pregnancy in which her water broke at 16 weeks. At 19 weeks a perinatologist gave the baby boy a 5% chance and suggested she terminate the pregnancy. She and her husband never considered it. She gave birth at 27 weeks to a baby boy: 2lbs 8oz. He spent 77 days in the NICU and is now home and doing well. There were many babies there even smaller, under 2 lbs. And born sooner. I suggest that anyone who cannot consider a baby a person before birth should visit a NICU. These little ones are people with names, who grow, feel pain, struggle to survive, and whose lives have great value.

  5. Michael McLaughlin says:


    Great article using location, development, size and contributive value to argue for equality of all humans. But I disagree with your premise that the unborn has the “right to life,” because I don’t believe that any of us have any rights, including the “right to life.” If the unborn have inherent rights, then what about those who God lets die before they are born? Didn’t they have the “right to life?”

    “Rights talk” is only necessary because we failed in our duties to our fellow ‘man.’ Instead of the “right to life.”

    Who among us would stand before God and assert our rights? Who except the Greeks and Romans and the wealthy would assert their rights throughout all of history? Rights are privileges granted by someone with the authority to do so. Americans have conferred rights, not innate rights, and conferred rights can be withdrawn, as we well know.

    Rather than talking about the ‘right to life’ for the unborn, if we as a people, as a society, as a nation fulfilled our duties to each other… if a mother fulfilled her duties to her unborn child, she would protect it. If we fulfilled our duties to the unborn, we would educate and train the minds of our citizens that they have the duty to protect their unborn children.

    But when was the last time you heard anyone talk about our duty to our fellow ‘man’?

    We talk about the Bill of Rights – again conferred and granted by our government, and there is always discussion about the limitations and even of curtailing some of those rights. Even the freedom of speech has limits: you can’t yell “Fire” in a theater if there is no fire. Try whispering the word “b_mb” in an email and see what happens!

    Today we talk about a right of health care, of a college education, the right to work, to find a job, to buy a house, to smoke pot…

    God gave no innate rights to any of us. But he did instruct us to fulfill our duties to each other, to take care of the sick and wounded, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to train the young to make wise choices, to care for our children, treat our animals kindly. These are our duties.

    Once we failed in our duties to each other, and stop talking about those duties everyone asserted and clamored for their rights. Now everyone claims their own rights, and for those who cannot speak for themselves, others will speak for them, including animals and unborn humans.

    And it goes without saying that anything that starts amiss will go awry. “Rights talk” has run amok. Black rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, animal rights, gay rights, the right not to be offended at university, etc. Some of these arose because we failed in our duties. Others emerged recognizing the value of asserting the right to something.

    I am not sure we can put the genie back in the bottle, but as Christians who would not reasonably assert that we have any innate rights before God, we might do our people a favor and begin educating them along this line. We might consider commencing with the huge task of reminding all of us our duties to everyone we meet, Christian and non-Christian, born and unborn.


  6. Martin says:

    “What do you deserve now? What are your rights as a human person? … A wedge issue? … What if science and Scripture and common sense would have us call it a person? … Where in the progression does our humanity begin and end? … When do human rights become our rights? …Why deny the rights of the little one who is what you are?”

    I affirm these rights you mentioned for fetuses – male and female. But I think there is a disconnect in many churches for those born as females.

    If we exercise spiritual intuition; asking this question based on common sense, science, Scriptural context, justice and fatherhood, then we would adhere to an egalitarian model for the church and the Kingdom of God. Otherwise, we betray the principles laid out for the unborn.

  7. Kristen Grimes says:

    Phenomenal! This is potentially the best, most thorough pro-life argument I’ve ever encountered. This message needs to be shared continually, without ceasing. The abortion controversy has always been one that I’m highly opinionated about. I’ve never understood how anyone could think that a fetus was not a human being. More so, I’ve never understood how anyone could take a human being’s life, especially one completely innocent. What really confuses me is Christians who can make a “justification” for abortion.

    I’ve done a great amount of research on the topic between my genuine concern and the fact that I’ve done an extensive project on it before (I CHOSE abortion as my topic). Over the years, I’ve heard many pro-choice arguments with several different “justifications.” The most occurring argument I hear is, “I wouldn’t want the baby if it was a product of rape. It would only remind me of the trauma.” To this I say, women have children in all kinds of bad situations. Some women have children from one-night stands. Other women have children whose fathers aren’t in the picture by the time of their birth. Some women have children in an unhappy marriage. Some women aren’t sure which man is the child’s father. None of these situations are good. In all of these situations, the child could remind the woman of an unhappy/traumatic/rough situation. That does not mean that the baby should have its life taken. I understand that in all of these situations, the woman still chose to partake in what resulted as a child, however in none of those situations, INCLUDING RAPE, did the child choose to be created. Yet, the child, if an abortion takes place, ultimately loses in the end. More importantly, women need to understand that regardless of how the child came to be, it is still THEIR baby.

    Let’s imagine that a woman is raped at the age of 18. She becomes pregnant with a baby girl and decides to keep her, while relentlessly trying to forget about the rape. When her daughter turns 18, the mother is flooded by every thought and mental image of the rape, and immediately wants her daughter dead. I pray this is never the case for anyone but everyone needs to understand…THIS IS THE SAME THING AS ABORTION. Everyone would go up in arms against the mother over this. They would say it would be murder. She would be put in prison for life. She would need to plead mentally insane for any sort of redemption in the courtroom. Yet, in most of our world, this is okay as long as we can convince ourselves that a baby isn’t a baby until it is birthed, even though it eats, has a heartbeat, a brain, organs, a formed body, and a sense of being.

    The second pro-choice argument I hear most often is, “If the baby is unhealthy, I don’t want to bring it into the world.” So not only did the baby not choose to exist, it didn’t choose to have a sickness, and now it’s not even going to get to choose to live. This argument either comes from someone who “wouldn’t want the baby to suffer,” or someone who wouldn’t want to deal with an unhealthy baby. People of all ages suffer from all kinds of things, and most still find a way to enjoy life. To keep someone from suffering by putting them to death before they live makes no sense to me. How do you know they will suffer? For someone who doesn’t want to deal with it, you shouldn’t have risked getting pregnant in the first place if you weren’t ready to “deal with it.” Having a baby that is potentially unhealthy is part of the risk you take in becoming pregnant. The original poster mentioned a 50 year old mother with Alzheimer’s. You wouldn’t put her to death because she was suffering. Consider an even worse disease. You just wouldn’t put someone to death because they were suffering. The ONLY reason they would be put to death is if THEY CHOSE to, which is only even a possibility in very rare circumstances.

    For Christians, no pro-choice argument can ever even began to be “justified.” The Bible, the Word of God speaks of the child in the womb and the care that God has for them. Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him.” Psalm 139:13-16 says, “For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 22:10 says, “From birth I was cast on You; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Galatians 1:15 says, “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased…” You cannot pick and choose what parts of the Bible you believe and don’t believe. Either it’s all true or none of it is true. Therefore, if you are a Christian, you should believe the whole Bible. It is very clear that God crafts and designs every single baby in the mothers wound. That baby is God’s, created by Him, not yours made by you. Regardless of the circumstance in which that baby came to be, if God did not want that baby to exist, you wouldn’t have become pregnant. Therefore, if you abort that baby, you are aborting God’s creation and plan.

  8. Greg says:

    Great article! I think the discussion of the criteria for life is helpful, though not necessary to argue against abortion.

  9. a. says:

    Michael: I disagree with your premise that the unborn has the “right to life,” because I don’t believe that any of us have any rights, including the “right to life.” If the unborn have inherent rights, then what about those who God lets die before they are born? Didn’t they have the “right to life?”

    Michael, couldn’t we say God knits every human life in His image, and ‘has a right to life’as long as God, who created that life, says so?

  10. mary Michaels says:

    It occurs to me often that we should celebrate our Lifedays nine months before our birthdays. This would give recognition to the fact that our life truly began at conception.

  11. I am not pro-choice but I ask the question are the many millions of spontaneously aborted foetuses persons now living in heaven awaiting the resurrection of the last day.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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