See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress video here.
After the release of a deliberately misleading cut of a video targeting Planned Parenthood for its policies regarding fetal tissue donation, the Texas Attorney General said his office is investigating Planned Parenthood for the “sale of baby body parts.” A number of other states, as well as federal lawmakers, have pledged to do the same thing for these “babies.” The Pro-Life Students Association told its members that Planned Parenthood was selling “the body parts of aborted babies.” A Personhood USA email talked about “preborn human beings.”
These aren’t medical terms. They’re intentionally deceptive bits of propaganda, and they create an anti-choice political frame for conversations about abortion care that are not rooted in sound science and medicine.
But oftentimes, even people who care deeply about reproductive rights aren’t sure how to talk about abortion in the most accurate way. Rewire talked to OB-GYNs and abortion providers—you know, actual doctors!—to compile a list of phrases and terms you’ll often hear during conversations about abortion care, their definitions, and their scientifically correct usage…if, in fact, there is a scientifically correct usage.
Last menstrual period, LMP: For accuracy’s sake, doctors generally measure pregnancies in weeks, rather than months, and LMP is the measure by which the vast majority of medical professionals calculate the weekly development of an embryo or fetus. It is calculated from the first day of the pregnant person’s last menstrual period. In the first trimester, many doctors use both LMP and an ultrasound to date a pregnancy. However, ultrasounds become less reliable for dating purposes as a pregnancy develops, said one doctor, “because of variations in fetal growth rates as well as margin of error of the technology.” So LMP gives doctors a good overall idea of the length of the pregnancy, and ultrasounds help them monitor fetal development.
Fertilization: The process during which an egg cell (“oocyte,” the thing that ovaries produce) unites with sperm (the thing that testicles produce), to create a zygote, the earliest stage of reproductive development.
Conception: A “metaphysical” term rather than a medical term, which “centers the zygote as a being,” according to an abortion provider who talked to Rewire.
Beginning of Pregnancy: When a fertilized egg successfully implants in the uterine wall. (Or, in cases of ectopic pregnancies, which are unsustainable and life-threatening to the pregnant person, when the fertilized egg implants elsewhere.)
Gestational age: This is a deliberately misleading term (sometimes called “post-fertilization age) that is not widely accepted in scientific use and misapplies the concept of “age” to an embryo or fetus in order to imbue it with the kind of “age” we might think of a child, teenager, or grown adult having. Doctors and other medical professionals, when discussing pregnancy, are not concerned with “age” but with the duration of a pregnancy (in weeks) and the development of that pregnancy. It is generally not possible to reliably pin down the moment of fertilization, so doctors don’t try—they stick with LMP and ultrasounds.
Embryo: The stage of development, in humans, up to nine weeks’ LMP.
Fetus: The stage of development from 10 weeks after LMP until birth.
Products of conception: A medical term to describe the embryonic or fetal contents of a uterus and attendant tissues. “Products of conception isn’t a euphemism,” one abortion provider told Rewire. “It’s an actual proper term [which] encompasses fetus, umbilical cord, membranes, placenta, etc.” If products of conception are present in a uterus, it signals that a pregnancy is not ectopic, wherein a fertilized egg implants somewhere other than a uterus.
Medical, or medication, abortion: An abortion using pharmaceuticals. Most medical abortions are prescribed using a combination of mifepristone (also called Mifeprex or RU-486), which blocks the hormone progesterone (which a body needs in order to continue a pregnancy) and misoprostol (also called Cytotec), which induces contractions.
Emergency contraception: Also known as the “morning-after pill,” it is not the same thing, repeat, NOT the same thing, as a medical abortion. This medication, which can be taken up to a few days after unprotected sex—with certain limitations depending on pharmaceutical content and patient characteristics—prevents, delays, or blocks ovulation, preventing fertilization (without which there can be no fertilized egg and no pregnancy).
Dilation and curettage (D and C): Falls under the category of “surgical abortion,” is also known as an “aspiration” abortion, and is done up to about 13 weeks’ LMP. It’s a medical procedure which requires less dilation than a D and E—”It’s always safer not to enter the uterus with forceps if you don’t need to,” said one provider we spoke to—and uses a suction method to remove products of conception. Why curettage, then? Because older providers were trained to do a sharp curettage, or scraping, after suction, but abortion providers who have been trained more recently tend not to do so. The “c” part of “D and C” stays in because the suction cannula is sometimes called a “suction curette.”
Dilation and evacuation (D and E): Falls under the category of “surgical abortion.” It’s a medical procedure which involves dilating the cervix (think 1.5 to 2.5 centimeters, as opposed to the 10 centimeters required for a full-term delivery) and a doctor entering the uterus with forceps, usually after about 14 weeks’ LMP depending on fetal development. Forceps are needed to grasp and remove the products of conception. Before the D and E procedure was developed, pregnant people would’ve had to have labor inductions in a hospital setting to facilitate the removal of fetal tissue. D and E procedures, widely misunderstood by anti-choice lawmakers, are recent targets for unnecessarily intrusive legislation that puts pregnant people at risk and prevents doctors from performing the safest possible procedures.
Partial-birth abortion: Not a thing. Well, it’s a string of words put together to make a phrase, so it’s a thing in the sense that a phrase is a noun, but medically, it has no meaning whatsoever. According to one abortion provider, it’s “not a distinction we make.” Instead, abortion providers are concerned with removing the products of conception safely. “A more intact removal, if you have adequate dilation, is safer for the patient,” said the provider, because the doctor makes fewer passes into the uterus. But it’s not something doctors can or do plan for: “You don’t deliberately set out to do an intact extraction, and sometimes you do one by accident.”
Induced abortion: When a pregnancy is ended using medication or surgical abortion care.
Self-induced abortion: When a pregnant person ends their pregnancy outside of a clinical setting.
Spontaneous abortion: A miscarriage.
Stillbirth: The spontaneous loss of a pregnancy (a miscarriage) that has developed past 20 weeks.
Viability: Many laypeople imagine the point of “viability” to mean the threshold at which a fetus is capable of surviving outside the uterus, but that threshold is different for every pregnancy, and greatly dependent on available medical care and existing technology. Generally speaking, medical professionals believe viability begins around 24 weeks’ LMP, and they take into account the likelihood not only of survival, but of disability and quality of life, when weighing potential fetal viability.
Neonate: An infant younger than four weeks old.
Baby: Not a medical term, but nevertheless a word that obstetricians and gynecologists do sometimes use when talking with patients, depending on their patient’s condition, situation, and personal preferences—not as an across-the-board replacement for “zygote,” “embryo,” or “fetus” in order to manipulate their patients’ emotions. Dr. Leah N. Torres, a Utah-based OB-GYN with a focus and training in family planning and reproductive health, told Rewire, “I change my language depending on the patient I’m caring for and their individual situation.” For people who might be losing desired pregnancies, said Torres, “that fetus has a high school diploma and is getting married once the urine test is positive”—in other words, that’s what some patients have imagined for the future—so she’s comfortable using “baby.” For someone having an abortion, Torres said she might be more likely to use “pregnancy” or “fetus.” But overall, she said, she prefers “to use the catch-all term ‘pregnancy’ which is medical and neutral and applies to all stages of the pregnancy.”
Person: A born human being who is not currently the occupant of a uterus and not therefore dependent on a human uterus for their continued development. I’ll let Torres take the rest of this one: “A person is a social or philosophical construct that, if applied to fetuses, will necessarily revoke the personhood of the pregnant person due to the ‘power’ imbalance and physical dependence of one upon the other. Miscarriage as involuntary manslaughter, if you will.”