Pro-life activists today fight an uphill battle when they contact the public: the field of battle in which the member of the public advances on the subject of abortion, and ethics in general, has been chosen by the proponents of the culture of death. Words like fetus, embryo, human, and person have, often without explicit changes to definition, taken on a different meaning in the eyes of the public and as they relate to subjects of controversy. When challenging the ideals of the culture of death the practice of arming oneself with words and strategies that play to our advantage is of great importance, perhaps second only to the importance of bringing oneself to actively challenge it in the first place. It is here that two symbiotic passions of mine: proper use of words, and the challenging of the culture of death, meet. I hope to show why, when I engage in Pro-life activism, I use the word “pre-born” to refer to the child in the state of unbirth, as opposed to “unborn,” and in the process to more fully express the reasons why I choose my words with care beyond what is accurate to what is of the practical superlative of effectiveness.

In conversation with others about the “pre-born” versus “unborn” topic I have found four relevant criteria for comparing the words effectiveness. The first of these is experience: in my experience, and in the experience of others who have made the change from “unborn” to “pre-born” in activism that I have spoken with, “pre-born” is simply a better received word. This being said, I have heard from those who have never made the change to “pre-born” that the word unborn works quite well for them, and I believe them. One group that I have not come into contact with is those who made the change from “unborn” to “pre-born” in conversation and then decided to reverse this action. I doubt the existence of this group. To me this seems a very compelling reason to favor “pre-born.” Indeed, the experiences of pro-lifers in conversation is the trump card over any other line of argument as it is the actual changing of hearts and minds, and the saving of lives, that is of supreme importance. If all other arguments ended reasonably in favor of “unborn” I would still use “pre-born” due to my experiences, and the experiences of many of those around me. This leaves us in a difficult situation, however; when we hold the word “pre-born” to be the more effective word based on experience those who have always used “unborn” can reference their own experiences as a counter-balance to our argument, and in a world where any accurate data analysis on the topic would be the stuff of science fiction, this frequently leaves the conversation at an impasse. When I hold that is a better word this means it would be more effective in anyone’s use, which means leaving it at “each to his own” spares us a semantic argument but costs innocent lives. For this reason, three other criteria are useful to explain not simply that “pre-born” is more effective and why I believe so, but also why it is more effective.

The difference between the two words is a single syllable prefix, so a good thing to examine would be the definitions of these two prefixes and see whether this gives either one an advantage. “Pre” comes from the Latin “prae”, meaning before, “pre-born” therefore means one in the state of being before the point of birth. “Un” in modern English has two roots, both from Proto-Germanic, the first being “un,” meaning negation, and the second being “andi”, meaning reversal. While the issue of abortion has certainly garnered enough attention that the meaning intended when one uses the word “unborn” is generally understood without much ado, the fact remains that one attempting to decipher the meaning of the word could come to the wrong conclusion without making any error in reasoning should not be ignored. A moment of opacity in a discussion can waste the chance to engage the person, and possibly cost the continuation of the discussion. We should not count on the good-will of our audience to cover instances of imperfect communication: given the controversy around the subject, we may frequently find it unavailable.

When in conversation connotations of a word can often have as much, if not more, effect on how the word is received than its actual definition or definitions. It makes sense then to examine the connotations of the two competing words to see what interference they may offer. To do this I used the presence of Wikipedia articles or stubs to gauge whether the word is used to some extent in popular culture to mean something other than the meaning we intend when we use it. “Unborn” is used in the title of six films, most of the horror genre, one promoting eugenics, and only a silent film from 1916 using it in a manner not altogether contrary to our purpose. It is also used in the title of two music albums of the “death metal” variety, and is the name of a folk metal band from Argentina. It also refers to the primordial creator deity from Xiantiandao, and of course the pre-born child. Alternatively, a search of the word “pre-born” redirects to the page titled “fetus.” I have been informed that the word has fleeting use in the “Dune ” series, the lack of article, or even a link to a section of an article, would seem to imply that this use of the word is far from common. Rarely, though not so unusually as to be completely negligible, are the connotations of the word “unborn” explicitly cited in conversation, indeed one might have an extensive amount of activism experience and never have had this occur. What might be worth some thought, however, is why the word unborn has such a sordid record in the entertainment industry to begin with. The intention of these uses of the word is to appear ominous and foreboding, a character that may have been lent to the word “unborn” through the popular animosity towards the apparently fascist belief in human rights not arbitrarily restricted to the state of birth. Whether popular sentiment contributed to, or was contributed to by an association with the horror theme and death metal “music, it would seem that the word has this connotation. Whether this connotation is only a vague negative feeling or a particular negative popular culture reference, it is not helpful in the effort to humanize the pre-born child to one’s audience.

There are also implications inherent to words, independent of exposure to popular culture, that derive instead from the structure of the word itself. The focus of the culture of death, and those who ascribe to its values, on dehumanizing the pre-born child lead them to focus on purported differences of state between the born and the pre-born. “Non-person,” “clump of cells,” and “parasite,” among other common friendly monikers applied to the youngest of our kind, due to the fact that the dichotomy to which attention is drawn is a dichotomy of attribute. Non-person with person, clump of cells with sentient organism, and parasite with non-parasite, draw the attention to the differences between us and them in a manner intended to magnify it in the mind of the conversant. The word “unborn” plays into this same strategy: it splits the human race into two opposed groups: the born and the unborn. The focus is on the difference of states that members of these two groups are in. The word “pre-born” on the other hand puts the focus elsewhere: though to be precise the word “pre-born” denotes a difference of state, where the difference of state implied by the word “unborn” is between what is and is not born the difference of state implied by the word “pre-born” is between what is before and after birth. Where the one foreignizes the pre-born child as from a separate group, the other conjures imagery of a timeline on which the child is before the point called birth and we after it. The word “pre-born” draws the focus of the conversation to the shared  nature of humans both before and after birth, and subsequently to the arbitrariness of drawing a distinction relevant to human rights at the point of birth, just one of many points along the human timeline. The word you use is not going to, by itself, lead the audience to the correct conclusion, but it will choose the field on which the ideas you present will be tested.

Some reasonable person is bound to wonder; isn’t it overkill to write an entire essay on the difference of one prefix? As I hope I have demonstrated with the above reasons, the difference of a prefix can make a substantial difference even when the meaning of the word is nearly identical. When we go to the streets intending to expose people to the falsehood of the culture of death’s claims and teachings, we must not forget that being as effective as possible is not merely our duty out of a good work ethic, like being the best garbage man we can be. The difference between most effective and very effective is a difference calculated in the shed blood of innocents. Choosing to use tools you are accustomed to when you are aware that better tools are at your disposal constitutes purchasing comfortable conversation with the lives of children. Choosing to ignore any opportunity for greater effectiveness, to not make your efforts count the most when it is your efforts that are what is required to end the killing, than this, not semantic discussion, is overkill.

One thought on “The right words: “Un-born” or “pre-born”?

  1. Emma Falconer says:

    I have for some time now wondered about the term “unborn” vs “pre-born” and was very happy to find your article. “unborn” has always seemed to be a somewhat demeaning term to apply to a child growing in the womb. Truly a child in the womb is pre-birth and so I have always though pre-born more appropriate than “unborn” when referring to the precious lives in the womb.

    Thank you for this article – it would be great if this article could receive more exposure. I would like to suggest that it is published by Lifesite, LiveAction and other pro-LIFE sites so more and more people change the vernacular by which we refer to precious children in the womb.

    Thank you again for the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *