In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fetuses and Embryos

  • Introduction

Childhood Studies Fetuses and Embryos
Jean Reith Schroedel, Erin E. Brooks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0107


In the non-medical/scientific publications, the human organism prior to birth generally is referred to as a fetus, but it is important to recognize that technically the term “fetus” actually only refers to the human organism from roughly the tenth week of gestation onward. Prior to that gestational age, terms, such embryo and zygote, are technically correct. However, in this article we will follow the convention of using fetus as an all-compassing term referring to the human organism at all stages of gestation. There are many possible avenues for the research that seeks to study the fetus. Beyond the foundational medical and technological developments, the researcher can explore many of the social, legal, and ethical questions surrounding the place of the fetus in modern society. With the advances in reproductive technology, what is the place of the physically or intellectually disabled fetus in society? Quality of life assessments and genetic counseling can help to inform the parents of their options under such circumstances, but the decision to keep or abort the fetus remains theirs alone to make. How does one define the beginning of personhood? At what point––fertilization, conception, some point during the pregnancy (such as viability) or birth––does the fetus take on personhood? Scholars, trained in medical ethics, religious thought, and philosophy, have engaged in extensive debates over this issue, but without reaching a consensus. One of the most perplexing questions is the relationship between the fetus and the woman. What is the woman’s responsibility to the fetus? How can women preserve their independence and autonomy? Legal commentaries are extensive on such questions. How can the state balance its requirements to protect the autonomy and equality of the woman with its interests in protecting future and potential life? Other researchers examine the influence of the fetus on modern culture, particularly the influence of the sonogram and fetal imagery on societal perceptions of the fetus in the womb. Although the issues of abortion and stem cell research have tended to dominate public discourse, there are other important legal and policy concerns. These include issues such as prenatal substance abuse, disability rights, and sex-selective abortion. The final section of this bibliography provides a list of a number of abortion/women’s rights–related protest and advocacy organizations. A number of them produce original research and policy analysis. Others emphasize public education and public protest. Many are involved in the electoral, legislative, and judicial processes. As will be evident in the entries that follow, medical and technological advances have reopened questions as to the meaning of embryonic and fetal life and its relationship to childhood.

Medical and Scientific

A good place to start is with an understanding of the biological development of the human organism prior to birth. There are a number of medical text and reference books that provide a detailed description of the growth and development process. These books range from a general coverage of the topic to specific elements of development and care. There also are a number of journals that cover areas of interest in obstetrics. Some of the newest topics in obstetric medicine include prenatal and genetic testing and the adverse effects of drug interactions. Many recent studies are focused on devising new, non-invasive tests to check the fetus for genetic disorders. Current tests, such as amniocentesis, are invasive and carry a number of risks for both the fetus and woman. In connection with this is the expanding field of testing for genetic disorders. These medical journals are full of articles that address testing for specific disorders. For the sake of broad coverage, this list includes articles with more general discussion. While these sources provide a good starting point, it should also be noted that medical science is a rapidly evolving field.

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