Let’s start with the obvious — this is a tricky, complicated, political-minefield topic. Our stance is sure to rub many of our reproductive health colleagues and pro-choice allies the wrong way. But plain language comes first at We ❤︎ Health Literacy Headquarters, and from that perspective there’s a clear winner.
In general, “unborn baby” is a better term to use when you’re writing content for consumers. Why? Because it’s easy to understand. “Fetus,” on the other hand, is a medical and scientific word that you aren’t likely to hear in everyday conversation.
Think of it like this: We don’t often talk about zygotes or embryos in health information for consumers, so why would we use “fetus”?
It’s important to note that it may make sense to teach the term “fetus,” especially if you think your readers are likely to see it again in health education materials — or hear it from a doctor. That’s why we often recommend including the word “fetus” in parentheses the first time you use the term “unborn baby.”
And a final note on this topic: if you’re writing exclusively for pregnant women, you may be able to drop the “unborn” altogether. After all, dear readers, a woman who is 9 months pregnant is very well aware that her baby isn’t born yet.
Check out these examples:
- If a pregnant woman breathes in secondhand smoke, it can harm her unborn baby (fetus).
- Making smart food choices during pregnancy can help keep you and your baby healthy.
At the very least, this topic is worth a debate around the water cooler.
The (perhaps unpopular) bottom line: When writing in plain language, the term “unborn baby” is best.