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Proclaiming Life: Preborn vs. Unborn

January 28, AD2014

We live in a world of conundrums. The pro-life movement is a perfect example. During the news coverage of the March for Life rally in Washington DC, I was struck by the term that many pro-life advocates continue to use when speaking about a child in the womb: unborn. Of all the prefixes that we could use in referring to the precious life in the womb, I have yet to determine why the term unborn was chosen. More perplexing, since it is an established fact (a unified consensus of both scientific community and pro-life advocates) that life begins upon fertilization, why do we continue to use the term un-born?

In distinguishing when life begins, Dr. Keith L. Moore, PhD, DSc, FIAC, FRSM, FAAA, one of the most respected anatomists and embryologists, says:

“[The Zygote] results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm … unites with a female gamete or oocyte … to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”  [The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th ed. Keith L. Moore, Ph.D. & T.V.N. Persaud, Md., (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), 2-18]

It’s not surprising that in our current culture, we might unconsciously gravitate toward the prefix “un-“. You don’t have to look very far to witness our fascination, and in some instances the unhealthy obsession with the un-living. First and foremost is our continued support and endorsement of abortion; legally killing to date over 1.4 billion children in the womb. Then there is the television show The Walking Dead that many people follow religiously. Then there is this whole culture of people that are preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. (Don’t roll your eyes. Even the US Center for Disease Control has a webpage devoted to the ridiculous phenomenon.)  Then, of course, we have the fascination with vampires that has been fostered and promoted by genre writers like Ann Rice and Stephanie Meyer, and immortalized by Hollywood.

So let me see if I understand this correctly. If you are not dead, and you are not alive, you are considered in a state of being that is clearly non-human.  If you are alive in the womb, but not yet born, why do we refer to you as un-born, implying clearly that you are non-human?  Remember, we have already established that life begins upon fertilization.

I will admit that my position on this issue is strongly influenced by my 30+ professional years pitching ideas to clients about selecting the right words and images that best represent their mission statement and corporate identity. I am just a little cognizant of word choices. Words have power. No, let me clarify that statement. Well chosen words have power.

Consider for a moment how often you are influenced by catchphrases, sound bites, and graphic images when making a purchase from candy bars to sports cars. Advertising agencies spend countless hours analyzing the market to determine the best appeal in presenting a widget to an audience. Once identifying the perceived impact of words and images on an audience, they test market a concept to a small group of consumers before ever launching the final advertisement to the public.

More specifically, consider how the pro-abortion advocates marketed and sold their endorsement of legalized murder.  It is not called pro-murder.  It is called pro-choice. They appealed to the current culture’s mentality; a  mentality that we have been exhibiting since the 1960s.  We live in a cafeteria culture.  Everyone wants choices. We want to pick and choose our morality. Everyone wants to feel empowered in making their own decisions, right or wrong; moral relativism.  Thus, the Madison Avenue advertising gurus cleverly chose pro-choice in promoting death, but also in concealing the truth; pro-murder.  As for images?  Oh, they don’t want you to see those, and refuse to show them in any of their promotions or campaigns.

From a linguistic perspective, the prefix “un-” means “not”. Taken from the Middle English (Old English), the prefix gives a negative influence on a word depending upon how it’s used. When I hear the word unborn, I distinctly hear the word “not”. Also taken from Middle English, “not” is derived from the word “nought” (non) used as an adverb to express denial, refusal, or prohibition.

The prefix “pre-” means something entirely different, originating from the Latin prefix “prae,” meaning before, first, prior to.  When I hear the word preborn, I indirectly hear the word anticipation. What is more beautiful and exciting than awaiting the birth of a child? Is’t childbirth supposed to be a celebration? A celebration of life? It’s the grand entrance of a human being into this world. Again, remember that we have already established that life begins upon fertilization.

Recently, I shared my quandary with Debi Vinnedge, CEO, of the national pro-life organization, Children of God for Life.  Recognizing the importance of using accurate terminology, Debi has championed the use of preborn rather than unborn for a number of years.

“The term “unborn” creates a problem, because it is somewhat vague. It gives the reader or listener an image of something, or someone, who is not born and perhaps, never will be. For example, a couple might talk about their future “unborn children” they are planning to have one day, but do not exist as of yet.  Pre-born, on the other hand, gives an image of someone who is already in existence, and is waiting to be born. It gives a more human and realistic description of the baby developing right here and now  in “pre-birth” stages. It describes a very real person who is living and breathing in the present – not the future.”

Therefore, with the knowledge and understanding that life begins at fertilization, and that we are living human beings in the womb, why don’t we all use the reference preborn? If we support life, and acknowledge that a child deserves our respect, support and protection while waiting comfortably in the womb until the birth process thrusts them out into this world, why not give them the dignity they deserve and refer to them as preborn?  Let’s proclaim life accurately. Because now that we know the truth, referring to them as anything less is not only unkind, it is also uninformed.

© 2014. Diane McKelva. All rights reserved.

Acknowledgement:  I gratefully appreciate the collaboration of my colleague, Debi Vinnedge, CEO, Children of God for Life, for her wisdom and expertise in assisting me to articulate this issue. 

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Recognized as the former Editor in Chief, Diane McKelva is now the Editor Emeritus of Catholic Stand. You can learn more about Diane and her work here.

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  • David Peters

    I get it, and you are absolutely right Diane. We should care about the preborn. It is a good word, and we as Christians should be about the culture of life. God bless.

  • Gentleman, thank you all for your comments. As always, I respect your opinions and appreciate your willingness to comment publically. Interesting that only men have commented thus far. 😉

    Let me respond collectively, if I may. Word choices do make a difference in perception. I used to think debating the word choice was simply linguistic semantics, but it’s hardly that.

    My article speaks for itself. There is really nothing more that I can add to convince you of the truth. Respectfully, you either get it, or you don’t. I do find it intriguing that the English language has an abundance of words that have a similar meaning, but have profound implications in their differences. If words didn’t matter, we wouldn’t have over 171K words that we use frequently, with about 47K that are infrequently used. (not included in the 171K total)

    It agree that this debate would be irrelevant if you would just call the child in the womb what he/she really is…….a living human being.

    Peace be with you,

    Diane

  • James

    Great article. Words do matter. They can significantly affect how people view things. Carefully choosing words might be a “game” sometimes. But when it comes to abortion, there’s millions of pre-born babies’ lives at stake. Is it a game then? Sadly, it sounds like it is to some people.
    When you use a word like “fetus,” it connotes that the developing baby is not really a person, but just a lump of tissue. To borrow someone else’s words: Why conflate reality? Call things as they are. DEVELOPING BABIES. The same goes for the term “UN-born,” which gives a negative connotation. But “PRE-born” sounds optimistic and hopeful. The attitude that “things don’t always happen the way we want” is just not the attitude to have, especially toward the most vulnerable human beings in the world.
    As a side note, it’s true no one says “pre-graduate.” Then again, no one says “un-graduate” either. But they do say “undergraduate.” Just sayin’ 🙂

    • Bob Carbone

      I echo James’ comment: Words do matter. I recall my friend, the late Nellie Gray of March for Life fame stating that using “unborn” versus “preborn” is buying into the unreality of the abortion mentality. I agree with Mrs. McKelva, preborn is accurate. Unborn is not. One more word on words. Mrs. McKelva uses the term, “legalized murder.” As an attorney I am used to being careful about the words I used. I am opposed to this since one cannot ‘legalize’ murder. What has happened is that it has been de-criminalized. There is no legal penalty for murdering a baby in the womb, nor soon after birth. We have become a society with truth turned on its head.

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  • HowardRichards

    This is being too cute by half. Someone who is “unborn” is someone who has not been born. That’s it. How do you know that person WILL be born? You don’t. A student is not a pre-graduate, because he may or may not graduate. It is the normal and desired outcome that a child in the womb be born and that a student graduate, but things don’t always happen the way we want.

    I suspect I’m not alone in getting really sick of these word games. Several years ago I remember hearing that the word “freshman” was sexist, so we should instead say, “first-year students”. Some faculty may actually do that, but none that I know.

  • Phil Dzialo

    Why conflate reality? Call things as they are, as people known them to be. sperm, egg, zygote, fetus, embryo, etc. Word games are neither helpful or useful, irrespective of one’s pro-life or pro-choice position,