Are unborn babies technically parasites?

by Luke Wayne
12/2/16

No, an unborn child is not a parasite, not even in a strictly technical sense. The only reason people try to argue this point is to morally diminish the value of the unborn child or to place the relationship of the pregnant mother and her child into a hostile category so as to justify abortion. Let's examine both the biological and ethical dimensions of this question:

What is a Parasite

The dictionary definition of a parasite is:

"An organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment."1

Obviously, the unborn child is not a different species from the mother. The unborn child is not a hostile, outside organism that has forced its way into the mother to feed off of her. The child is the mother's natural offspring. In fact, if we want to be thorough here, even this basic dictionary entry is not a fully adequate definition of a parasite. There are a few biological terms we need to understand. "Symbiosis" is the living together in a more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms. There are three kinds of Symbiosis:

  • Mutualism (where the organisms are mutually beneficial to one another)
  • Commensalism (where only one organism benefits but the other is not injured or physically harmed)
  • Parasitism (where one organism benefits to the injury of the other)

A parasite is not merely an organism that is attached to and feeds off of another organism. It is an organism that attaches to a member of a different species and feeds off that organism in a manner that is physically injurious to the other organism. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines parasitism this way:

"An intimate association between organisms of two or more kinds; particularly one in which a parasite obtains benefits from a host which it usually injures."2

So, a mother's own child developing through the natural process of life and reproduction does not fit the definition of a parasite at all. The child is the same species and pregnancy, while uncomfortable and inconvenient, is not a relationship that usually injures the mother. Further, the term "parasite" is clearly meant to classify a certain variety of animal behavior, not to describe the natural process of reproduction within a given species. The biological category of "parasite" in no way describes an unborn human child in relation to its own mother.

Ethical Vocabulary

Understanding this, why do abortion advocates put forward this idea that an unborn child is "technically a parasite" when it's so plainly untrue? The reason is simple: the vocabulary we use to frame ethical discussions greatly influences where those discussions will land. If we begin to think of the child as a parasite, then we will feel that the child is something innately negative. By making this claim, the abortion advocate is acknowledging the indisputable fact that the unborn child is already alive and distinct from the mother, but they are trying to evade the moral force of this truth. After all, even if a parasite is a living thing, we still feel we ought to destroy it for the good of the host. We would not be inclined to argue that a parasite has the same moral rights as the organism it is "attacking." Thus, by trying to turn the beautiful and natural connection between a mother and her child into a hostile battle between a parasite and its victim, abortion proponents attempt to reframe our moral intuitions.

Take a step back and consider the word "abortion" itself. To "abort" simply means to stop, cease, or discontinue. Discontinue what exactly? Some might reply, "the pregnancy," but that is clearly incorrect. If that were the case, then having a Cesarean section or even medically inducing live birth would be classified as "abortions." If an "abortion" procedure is performed and the child comes out alive, it is considered a failed abortion even though it successfully ended the pregnancy. Why? Because we aren't talking about aborting a pregnancy. We are talking about aborting the child. What does it mean to end, stop, cease, or discontinue a human life? What words would we normally use for that? Not "abortion." But we have come to speak of "abortion" in this context because we want to justify the action and the term "abortion" is relatively neutral. If one were to use more precise language, like "prenatal infanticide," they would find it harder to stomach affirming it. This is also why advocates of prenatal infanticide call themselves "pro-choice" and even label life advocates with the absurd moniker "anti-choice." (As if the concept of "choice" is something that someone could choose to oppose). By framing the argument in terms of choice and freedom, they attempt to attach their position to virtues highly valued in our culture. This also, ironically, takes the spotlight away from the fact that we are talking about permanently taking all choices and all freedoms away from the child by taking their very life.

This is what is going on when someone attempts to justify applying the vocabulary of "parasite" to the unborn child. They are not making a technical observation since, even in the most technical sense, the terminology is false. They are attempting to create the false impression of a moral equivalence between pregnancy and parasitism so as to evade the weight of the undeniable reality that the unborn child is a human life.

  • 1. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/parasite?s=t (Accessed 12/2/16)
  • 2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/parasitism (Accessed 12/2/16)