Because Language Matters: ‘Foeticide’ vs ‘Abortion’

Because Language Matters: ‘Foeticide’ vs ‘Abortion’

An Australian pro-life medical doctor shares his thoughts on the terminology related to abortion. It’s a timely article, since this battle for life is so often conducted through various forms of dialogue: it’s important we remember that our language matters.

*Note: this article first appeared in the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants (Melbourne) newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

‘Foeticide’ vs ‘Abortion’

  • That the term “foeticide” is a better term than “abortion” when speaking about the intentional killing of the unborn.
  • Also the word “abortion” is used as a weapon against us by our opponents.


“Foeticide” is a specific term.

It is the intentional and unjust killing of the unborn baby (of course killing a baby is always unjust). This is a type of homicide, the same as infanticide, fratricide, patricide, matricide, regicide and genocide.

Whereas “Abortion” is a non- specific term. 

As well as including foeticide (of course the vast majority of “abortions” are actually “foeticides”) it also includes miscarriages and medical terminations of pregnancy which may be in fact therapeutic (to save the life of the mother-see below).

Doctors use the term “miscarriage” meaning a premature delivery, which had occurred naturally, and the baby does not survive. If you look up a medical dictionary, for example Dorland’s Medical Dictionary which is the most well known, the definition of abortion is given as “termination of pregnancy” following that are about two pages of different types of abortion but nowhere does it have any reference to death or destruction of the unborn baby.  Doctors sometimes use the term “abortion” by which they may mean that the pregnancy has been terminated medically and the baby is not expected to survive but usually use the term “termination of pregnancy”. This may involve the intentional killing of the baby but not necessarily so. Also the terms “miscarriage” and “abortion” are used interchangeably by doctors in certain situations. As you can see the language is not specific and leads to confusion.

Termination of Pregnancy is Sometimes Necessary

I think we need to accept this in order to progress further and to understand how our opponents use the word “abortion” of this to confuse people and sow their lies.

As I said before unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to perform “an abortion” or “termination of pregnancy” to save the mother’s life. This is in accordance with current medical knowledge i.e. objective evidence. For example to save the mother’s life in the case of severe pre-eclampsia or intra-uterine infection it may be necessary to induce the delivery of a baby before the baby is usually viable. This is, in medical terminology, a “termination of pregnancy” which is often synonymous with the layman’s term, “abortion”.

(As a doctor I have seen this first hand in Papua New Guinea over 30 years ago where a mother with pre-eclampsia absconded from the hospital I was working at and returned several weeks later in a coma. Both mother and baby died.)

However in these cases, the termination of the pregnancy does not involve the intentional killing of the unborn baby although it may be too young to survive the delivery. In these cases it is a medically anticipated that if the unborn baby is not delivered even before it is usually viable the mother will die.  The “grey area” is when to deliver the baby in order to give it the best chance possible for survival without undue risk to the mother’s life.

This will depend on expert medical opinion and, granted, this would be arguable. But if it is done with due regard to the value of both lives I think that is acceptable because it is the best that we can do.

The Principle of Double-Effect

I have heard it argued that it is never acceptable to allow the death of an unborn child even if it causes the death of the mother because this means it is the murder of the unborn child. However I disagree that it is murder by applying the “principle of double effect” which was elucidated by St Thomas Aquinas:

(i) The intended effect of the act is good, not evil, and there is no better alternative to the act.
(ii) The bad effect is not intended although it may be foreseen.

(iii) The good effect is not brought about by means that are intentionally or intrinsically evil.
(iv) The magnitude of the good is equal or greater than that of the bad.

You can apply this to “Termination of Pregnancy (TOP)”/ “Abortion” as follows:


Special Consideration: - Principals pertaining to pregnancy:

  • The mother’s life and health always comes first as the baby’s well being is totally dependent  upon the mother.
  •  It is reasonable and just to assist the mother to carry the pregnancy as far as possible in order to allow the baby a greater chance of survival, unless it gravely endangers the health of the mother. Then it is necessary to deliver the baby even though it may not survive.


  • FOETICIDE: The intentional killing of the unborn baby. It is never justified
  • EARLY DELIVERY:  The intentional removal of the baby from the mother’s body without primarily intending its death. (although this may be foreseen). This may be necessary if:
    •       - continuing the pregnancy is a grave threat to the baby.
    •       - continuing the pregnancy is a grave threat to the mother and, as a consequence, the baby     
      • (e.g. in ectopic pregnancy, severe pre-eclampsia/eclampsia and severe heart disease).

Consensus by The Dublin Declaration

Also, in my opinion, it is never medically necessary to perform a medical procedure whose primary intention is the death or destruction on the unborn baby to save the mother’s life. I am supported in this by  “The Dublin Declaration”.


“As experienced practitioners and researchers in obstetrics and gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.

We uphold that there is a fundamental difference between abortion, and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child.

We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.”

In my opinion it is reasonable to assist the mother to carry the pregnancy as far as possible in order to allow the baby a greater chance of survival, unless it gravely endangers the health of the mother. Then it is necessary to deliver the baby even though it may not survive.

In summary, provided that it was never the primary intention to kill the unborn baby but that it was to save the mothers life, termination of pregnancy is acceptable albeit regrettable. In any case if the mother dies and the unborn baby is not viable, failure to act by the doctor will mean the baby will die as a result of the mother’s death anyway.

Author: genericmum

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