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Abortion access

Definition of terms related
to abortion & pregnancy

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Terms must be used with great care. Because various groups define words differently, misunderstandings are common. Some often used and confused terms related to abortion are:

bullet Abortifacient: medication which terminates pregnancy and induces an abortion. Since the pro-life movement generally defines the start of pregnancy as occurring during the process of conception, while physicians and the pro-choice movement generally defines it at the implantation of the blastocyst in the wall of the uterus, a medication can be considered as an abortifacient by pro-lifers and a contraceptive by everyone else.
bulletAbortion: This word has many meanings. Two of the most popular are:
bulletThe definition used by the medical and pro-choice communities is: the end of a pregnancy before viability of the fetus. i.e. the termination of the process of gestation after the time when the zygote attaches itself to the uterine wall (about 14 days after conception), but before the fetus is possibly capable of surviving on its own. (currently 23 to 28 weeks from conception). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,  the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has defined abortion as occurring before the 20th week (134th day) of gestation. There are two types of abortions:

bulletAccidental abortion: a termination of pregnancy before viability that occurs naturally, without medical intervention. This is commonly called a miscarriage by the public.

bulletTherapeutic abortion: a termination of pregnancy via the intervention of a physician through surgery or the use of RU-486 or some other medication.

bulletPro-lifers sometimes define abortion as an intentional interruption of the development process, at any time from conception to birth.

See also a list of definitions of "abortion" used by various organizations.

bulletAnti-abortion: This is a term whose meaning is in flux. Sometimes it is used as a derogatory synonym for "pro-life." Recently, it has been frequently used to refer to individuals and groups who take violent action against abortion providers or clinics, up to and including shooting staff and bombing clinics. More info.
bulletAnti-choice: Derogatory term used to refer to pro-life advocates, implying that their prime motivation is to control women and restrict their freedom. Almost all "pro-lifers" appear to be motivated by the belief that a fertilized ovum, embryo and fetus are a human person whose life must be protected. More info.

Baby: Normally, this means a very young child aged from birth to perhaps 1 year. The term is also sometimes used (particularly by pro-life advocates) to refer to a zygote, blastocyst, morula, embryo, or fetus.

bulletBlastocyst: A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) extends from the morula stage (a shapeless mass of cells about 4 days after fertilization), to an bilaminar (two layer) embryo stage (1 week after fertilization).
bullet Child: Normally, this means a person aged from birth to puberty. Sometimes it is used to refer to an unborn fetus as well - particularly by pro-life advocates. In legal usage, it often means a person who has been born but has not attained her or his 18th birthday.

Conception: A synonym for the fertilization process

bullet Embryo: A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) extends from 2 to 8 weeks after fertilization. It is termed a "bilaminar" or two layer embryo during its second week and becomes a trilaminar (3 layer) embryo during its third week. At and after 9 weeks it is generally referred to as a fetus until birth.
bullet Fertilization: The process that starts when a sperm contacts an ovum. It ends with the intermingling of chromosomes from both the sperm and ovum to produce a full set of chromosomes - 46 in most humans. The result is a zygote, often popularly referred to as a "fertilized ovum." If it has two X chromosomes, then the zygote is a genetic female; if it has an X and Y, it is a genetic male. Other combination of the sex chromosomes are possible, like XXY, XXYY, etc. This process is generally regarded as the start of pregnancy within the pro-life movement. It is often incorrectly believed to take place instantaneously. Physicians and the pro-choice movement regard the start of pregnancy when the ovum develops into a blastocyst and attaches itself to the wall of the uterus at about 10 days after fertilization.
bulletFertilizational Age is the age of an embryo, fetus, or newborn as measured from the date of fertilization. It is sometimes called "conceptional age" or "developmental age." See gestational age.
bulletFetus: From the Latin fetus, meaning offspring, bringing forth, hatching of young. 2 A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) starts 9 weeks after fertilization or at the gestational age of 11 weeks. Once born, the fetus is referred to as a newborn.
bulletGestational Age is the age of an embryo, fetus, or newborn as measured from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period. This is approximately 2 weeks before conception or fertilization. See fertilization age.
bulletHysterotomy: A surgical procedure which involves cutting through the woman's abdomen into the uterus (womb) and removing the fetus. It is often referred to as a Cesarean section.
bullet Implantation: Attachment of the embryo to the wall of the uterus. This is generally regarded as the start of pregnancy by medical professionals and the pro-choice movement. The process of "Attachment starts about 5 to 8 days after fertilization and is completed by 9 or 10 days..." 3
bulletInfant: A child; variously defined as aged from birth to 12 months, seven years, and even (in some legal applications) as old as 21 years.
bullet Intact D&X Abortions A rare procedure in which the brain is removed from a fetus when it is partly born. Perhaps 3,000 out of the 1.2 million yearly abortions (<0.2%) in the US use this procedure. The size of the skull is reduced by removing the fetal brain. This permits the fetus to be removed more easily through the woman's cervix. Its use is normally restricted to very rare instances in which:

bullet The fetus is already dead.

bullet The fetus is alive but is killed in order to save the life of the woman.

bullet The fetus is alive but is killed in order to avoid very serious injury and long term or permanent disability to the woman

Testimony before a Senate committee indicated that a few doctors in the United States routinely performed D&X abortions for reasons other than stated above. One who did so was a physician in New Jersey.

The alternative to performing a D&X is a hysterotomy. This is a type of Cesarean Section which is far more dangerous to the woman; it can cause perforation or tearing of the uterus, hemorrhaging, and/or complications in future pregnancies.

bullet Sperm is generally considered a form of human life, because it contains human DNA and meets the common definition of "life." However, some definitions of "life" are very restrictive and include the ability to reproduce. Under this more restrictive defintion, a spermatozoon would not be considered alive. An individual sperm might have been present for months before it has the opportunity to approach an ovum.

bullet Similarly, an ovum is generally considered a form of human life, because it also contains human DNA. It ripens and is expelled by an ovary many days before having the possibility being exposed to sperm.

bulletA new-born baby is a human life and a human person.

Pro-life advocates typically believe that the transition from human life to human personhood happens at fertilization. Pro-choice advocates typically believe that the transition happens much later (e.g. when the fetus is viable -- capable of living on its own, or when its higher brain functions start to operate, or when it is born, etc.).

bulletMeiosis is a process by which the number of chromosomes in a germ cell are halved. In humans, this is normally a reduction from 46 to 23. This happens to an ovum after it is fertilized by a sperm. It happens to sperm before they are released by the testes.
bullet Miscarriage: Interruption of pregnancy prior to the 7th month. Usually used to refer to an expulsion of the fetus which starts without being induced by medical intervention. Approximately 40% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage. This is a very inexact number, because many embryos occurr unnoticed because they are rejected by the woman's body before she is aware that she is pregnant. 
bulletMorula: A very early stage of pre-natal mammalian development. This stage starts when the zygote has developed into a mass of 16 cells. This is typically 4 days after fertilization, and about 6 days before it becomes implanted in the wall of the womb.
bulletOocyte: an ovum
bulletOvum: The mature sex cell generated by females in an ovary. They are about 1/100 inch in diameter and are often (although not necessarily) released from alternate ovaries about once per month. Probably over 99% of ova die without being fertilized and given the opportunity to develop into a fetus. It is a form of human life because it contains human DNA; however, it is not regarded as a human person.
bullet Pain, fetal: Some pro-life avocates note that an embryo at seven weeks, early in the first trimester, has developed pain sensors. They assume that it can feel pain -- particularly pain associated with abortion. However, this appears to be impossible, because the pathways that connect these sensors to the brain have not developed. Also, the higher functions of the embryo's brain are undeveloped; the embryo is not sentient; it is not conscious. Most developmental neurobiologists who are not pro-life believe that the sensing of pain can only happen sometime after about the 24th week of gestation when thalomocortical connections are established. State and provincial medical associations prohibit abortions long before that time, except for very unusual circumstances.
bulletPartial Birth Abortion (PBA): A recently coined non-medical synonym for intact Intact D&X abortion.
bullet As used by the medical and pro-choice communities: The stages of pre-natal mammalian development which extends from the time that the embryo attaches to the wall of the uterus until birth. Pregnancy thus starts about 10 days after conception.
bulletAs used by pro-life groups: pregnancy extends from conception until birth.
bullet Pre-embryo: A zygote, morula, blastocyst or embryo before it develops a "primitive streak" that will eventually form the spinal column. Once this happens, twinning is essentially impossible.

bulletPrimitive streak: A marking which appears on an blastocyst about 14 days after fertilization, at about the time that it is implanted in the wall of the uterus. Division into identical twins is very rate after this point. (See "Twinning"). The streak will eventually develop into the fetus' spinal column.

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bullet Pro-abort, Pro-abortion: Derogatory term used to refer to the pro-choicers, implying that they promote abortion. In reality, their motivation is to give women choice in controlling their own bodies. More info.
bullet Pro-choice: A belief that women should be given access to abortions if she wishes to terminate a pregnancy. People who consider themselves "pro-choice" take many positions. Some believe that a woman should have access to abortions up until fetal viability; some would permit abortions for any reasons up to the time that the fetus becomes sentient (i.e. when its higher brain functions first turn on and they become conscious). Still others say that a woman should be able to choose to have an abortion later in pregnancy. More info.
bullet Pro-life: In general, this is movement whose members believe that human life (in the form of a spermatozoon and ovum) becomes a human person at the instant of conception (or perhaps shortly after when a unique DNA is produced). Thus the lives of all pre-embryos, embryos and fetuses should be protected under law until birth. The term has been embraced by some who feel that abortions should be totally unavailable, even to save the life of the woman. Others would allow a woman to have an abortion to avoid disastrous or disabling health problems. At the other end of the spectrum are persons who would allow abortions if caused by of rape or incest. According to one Pro-life group, legislators who have vote in favor of a ban on partial birth abortions sometimes call themselves "pro-life:" Pastor Matt Trewhella of noted that now even a person "who is only opposed to partial-birth abortions can sell themselves as pro-life."1
bulletSperm, Spermatozoa: The mature sex cell generated by males. They are about 1/500 inch long. Almost all of their length is formed by a tail. Tens of thousands are generated every minute by most males, starting at puberty. Over 99.999% of sperm die without being able to fertilize an ovum.
bulletStages of development: An ovum, after fertilization, is called a zygote. This becomes, in turn, a morula, blastocyst, embryo and fetus. At birth, the fetus becomes a newborn. Pro-lifers generally refer to all stages of development after fertilization as a baby. 
bullet Trimester: A period lasting nominally 3 months. A human pregnancy is often divided into three trimesters, from fertilization to birth. U.S. state laws restricting abortions often differ among the trimesters. Canada is believed to be unique in the world: it has no laws regulating abortions. However, provincial and territorial medical associations have established regulations that define under what conditions abortions may be performed.
bullet Twinning: A process by which an morula, blastocyst or embryo divides in half to produce twins with identical genetic makeup. This normally happens at some time up to the 14th day after fertilization, before the "primitive streak" appears. Twinning does rarely happen later that 14 days and produce conjoined twins; these are popularly called "Siamese twins.'
bullet Viability: The ability for the developing fetus to live on its own if it were delivered by cesarean section or by normal delivery, and given expert medical care. This typically occurs sometime after the 21st week of gestation or the 19th week following fertilization. By about the 23rd week gestational age or the 21st week following fertilization, on the order of 60% of fetus can survive outside the womb. Abortions are allowed by various state and provincial medical associations only prior to viability. Terminations of pregnancies at or after viability are not usually performed, except for overwhelming medical reasons (threat to the woman's life, a dead fetus, or the need to terminate the pregnancy to avoid a very serious disability to the mother). The US Supreme Court defined viability (Roe v. Wade, 1973) as "potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid."
bulletZygote: A recently-fertilized ovum.

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  1. Pastor Matt Trewhella, "Coming home to roost: Fruit of the Ill-conceived Partial-Birth Abortion Strategy," at:

  2. "Fetus," Wikipedia, at:

  3. "HON Dossier: Mother & Child Glossary," Health on the Net Foundation, at:

  4. "Fetus," Wikipedia, as on 2011-AUG-15, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated and reviewed on 2012=APR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson.
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