Back to the Dictionary Part I: What is Pregnancy?

by Kaitlyn Clare Elizabeth Mason


There seems to be some confusion about the definition of a pregnancy these days.

Four months into our pregnancy, a woman congratulated me and asked how the baby was doing. “Well, I mean, it’s not really a baby yet,” she added. “Well, kind of, but not really.” She was confused.

Don’t judge. If you pay any attention to what society is shouting through megaphones these days, is it any surprise people are confused?

I decided to pull out the trusty, old dictionary and do some investigating. Let’s clear this up, shall we? What is pregnancy?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines pregnancy as, “the condition of a woman or female animal that is going to have a baby or babies; the condition of a pregnant woman or female animal.” From this definition, we can infer that a woman who experiences a healthy and complete pregnancy is going to have a baby or babies, and she is pregnant. Furthermore, Merriam-Webster defines pregnant as, “of a woman or female animal; having a baby or babies developing inside the body.”

So why the confusion about whether a pregnant woman is carrying a baby?

If we are a little more technical about defining developing tissue in a pregnancy, a couple of other terms come into play: namely, embryo and fetus. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s online medical dictionary defines being pregnant as, “containing a developing embryo, fetus, or unborn offspring within the body.”

Interestingly, on Planned Parenthood’s Pregnancy Week by Week page, the developing matter in a pregnancy is referred to as a fetus throughout the entire pregnancy. After birth, it is then referred to as a newborn. The word “baby” is not found at all on this page.

Contrast this with Mayo Clinic’s Pregnancy Week by Week pages, which describe the developing matter in a pregnancy as a “baby” beginning immediately in the first trimester.

How do we reconcile this objectively? We can all agree that newborns are babies, but the terms embryo & fetus are elusive for some.

Merriam-Webster’s online medical dictionary provides this definition for embryo, “1 archaic: a vertebrate at any stage of development prior to birth or hatching; 2: an animal in the early stages of growth and differentiation that are characterized by cleavage, the laying down of fundamental tissues, and the formation of primitive organs and organ systems; especially: the developing human individual from the time of implantation to the end of the eighth week after conception.”

It provides this definition for fetus, “an unborn or unhatched vertebrate especially after attaining the basic structural plan of its kind; specifically:  a developing human from usually two months after conception to birth.”

So a closer look reveals that the terms embryo and fetus can refer to a vertebrate, an animal, or a developing human.

Take your pick, it doesn’t make a difference.

If the pregnant woman is human, the vertebrate she is carrying is a human vertebrate. The animal she is carrying is a human animal. The developing human she is carrying is a human.  And a human is a type of animal.

For a pregnant woman, pregnancy always refers to carrying a developing human within her body. And after birth, that human is going to continue developing.

Is a developing young plant that is pressing up from the soil any less a plant than one that is budding or in full bloom?  Is a developing young human within its Mother’s womb any less a human than one that is more developed?

An embryo, a fetus, an unborn offspring, a newborn, a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, an adult, an elderly person – all of these terms refer to developing matter. And when that developing matter comes from human parents, all of these terms refer to a developing human animal.  It all begins with pregnancy.

So is it a baby? Mirriam-Webster’s online medical dictionary defines baby as, “an extremely young child, especially: infant; an extremely young animal.”

At the earliest stages of pregnancy, we find an embryo.  It is defined as an animal, and it is certainly extremely young. Therefore, even an embryo is most certainly a baby.

So what is pregnancy? Every step of the way, it is always referring to a woman carrying a baby.