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Is the NY Times' Use of the Word 'Fetus' to Describe Babies in Gosnell Murder Trial Appropriate?
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Is the NY Times' Use of the Word 'Fetus' to Describe Babies in Gosnell Murder Trial Appropriate?

"Unfortunately, it’s actually legal in the United States under Roe v. Wade to kill viable fetuses during an abortion. That is not why Kermit Gosnell is on trial."

Many mainstream media outlets received a plethora of criticism for failing to adequately cover the Dr. Kermit Gosnell trial until they were very-literally pressured into doing so. Now, one newspaper is facing critique over its actual coverage of the horrific murder trial.

Why, you ask? A report in The New York Times on Tuesday mentioned the word "fetus" a number of times. While many would argue that there's nothing wrong with the term, itself, utilizing it in a case that discusses babies who were allegedly murdered outside of the womb is a bit more murky -- according to at least one Christian professor.

Danny Burk, an associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, penned a blog entry this week taking aim at the Times, claiming that the outlet is reporting with "inaccurately." The news story in question is entitled, "Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Is Cleared on Some Charges."

In this undated photo provided by the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, Dr. Kermit Gosnell is shown. Credit: AP

Burk notes that the word "fetus" first appears in the article's lede. Times reporter Jon Hurdle writes, "A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday threw out three of seven murder charges against a Philadelphia doctor charged with killing viable fetuses while performing abortions." It is this comment that Burk begins to unpack, noting the following:

In spite of this report, Kermit Gosnell is emphatically not on trial for “killing viable fetuses while performing abortions.” Unfortunately, it’s actually legal in the United States under Roe v. Wade to kill viable fetuses during an abortion. That is not why Kermit Gosnell is on trial.

Gosnell is on trial for killing live-born babies after a botched abortion. The Grand Jury indicted Gosnell for seven counts of murder in the first degree. In the actual words of the Grand Jury report, they indicted Gosnell for the “murder of babies born alive.”

Burk also goes on to note that the very definition of "fetus," as outlined in the American Heritage Dictionary, reads as follows: "In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo."

The point that the professor makes is that the word explicitly means "unborn." In the case of the seven babies' lives that Gosnell was initially on trial for purportedly murdering, the human beings were allegedly killed outside of the womb (three of these charges have been dropped). If this is the case, then they cannot be considered fetuses; naturally, they would be termed "babies."

Photo Credit: AP

The lede, though, isn't the only place in which Hurdle's coverage uses the word in question. Here are some of the other portions of the article that do so as well:

  • "Judge Minehart also granted a motion for acquittal in five charges of abuse of corpse against Dr. Gosnell, who according to prosecutors killed fetuses that were alive after they were aborted by plunging scissors into their necks. Dr. Gosnell, 72, was also acquitted on one charge of infanticide."

  • "Bryan Kemper, youth outreach director for Priests for Life, an anti-abortion group, said he was 'obviously frustrated' with the judge’s decision. Mr. Kemper, who traveled from Ohio to attend the trial, said he was convinced that Dr. Gosnell had deliberately killed live fetuses."

  • "Dr. Gosnell’s lawyer, Jack J. McMahon, argued that none of the seven fetuses his client is accused of killing were alive when they were removed from their mothers...

  • "Mr. McMahon dismissed prosecutors’ arguments that an arm movement by one of the fetuses, known as Baby C, indicated that it was alive. He said that the movement was 'one spasm' but that the fetus was not breathing."

Burk goes on to note that "fetus" is generally only used to describe an unborn human being and that, in the case of the allegations against Gosnell, this simply doesn't stand. Since the Times piece does make it clear that babies were killed after birth, Burk is simply confounded by the word's usage.

"Perhaps it was a thoughtless error that can be corrected," the professor wrote. "Or maybe it is an intentional editorial decision on the part of the Times to allow language that dehumanizes babies that were targets of abortion."

He goes on to note that some will accuse him of splitting hairs, but he rejects that notion. Considering the Times' influence, Burk believes it's essential that the paper properly acknowledges humanity -- and he's hoping that the outlet will issue a correction. See his arguments in full here. And read the Times article here.

Do you agree? Take the poll after the must-reads.


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