Monday, June 15, 2009

Is the Fetus a Parasite?

There is apparently some question as to whether or not the fetus qualifies as a parasitical animal. I am just as surprised as you are at this notion but in the interest of fairness, I am willing to present my thoughts as to why the fetus does not qualify as a parasite.

The first step is to define the criteria for what classifies a parasite. One of the most important criteria for a parasite is that the parasite is always a different species from it's host. When I look up the definition for parasite I find the following.

Temporary parasites.
These parasites spend only part of their lives as a parasite and another part as free-living organism. Examples are: Fasciola hepatica (Liver fluke (douve)) Schistosoma Ascaris Haemonchus

Here is a much clearer scientific description of parasitism in the Encyclopedia Britannica: (emphasis added)
Encyclopedia Britannica Article
Page 1 of 1 relationship between two species of plants or animals in which one benefits at the expense of the other, sometimes without killing it. Parasitism is differentiated from parasitoidism, a relationship in which the host is always killed by the parasite; parasitoidism occurs in some Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, and bees), Diptera (flies), and a few Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths): the female lays her eggs in or on the host, upon which the larvae feed on hatching. (free temporary subscription required)

And here is a definition from Online Medical Dictionary: (emphasis added)
A type of symbiosis where two (or more) organisms from different species live in close proximity to one another, in which one member depends on another for its nutrients, protection, and/or other life functions. The dependent member (the parasite) benefits from the relationship while the other one (the host) is harmed by it.

And here is another from the U of Penn Vet School: (emphasis added)
The term parasitism may be defined as a two-species association in which one species, the parasite, lives on or in a second species, the host, for a significant period of its life and obtains nourishment from it. This is a commonly accepted working definition of parasitism and using it we can emphasize several important features of the host-parasite relationship. Parasitism always involves two species, the parasite and the host.

And here's another one from the U of MN (emphasis added)
A Parasite is by definition any organism which lives on or in the body of another organism of a different species (i.e., the host). This definition allows the name 'parasite' to be attached to many living species, including bacteria, fungi and viruses.

And here is a definition from Aberystwyth University, Wales (emphasis added)
Parasitism is, like most other animal associations defined in terms of two different species, who form a regular association, although this seems sensible, and it does exclude consideration of the mammalian foetus as being parasitic upon its mother, there are some very interesting immunological parallels between the mechanisms the foetus uses to avoid being rejected by the immune response of its mother and the ways in which the parasites of mammals seek to avoid their hosts immune response. http:// defines parasite as
Parasite: An organism that lives in or on and takes its nourishment from another organism. A parasite cannot live independently.

Notice that in that last definition there is an omission of the technicality that the organism is from a different species. Is this significant to you? When I discuss this topic with a pro-choicer they are quick to point out any definition that has this omission. The question though is whether or not this really is a factual omission or an editorial omission.
An editorial omission would be done for the sake of brevity. Certain elements of a definition may be glossed over when it is considered to either be common knowledge, or secondary to what the author considers important information.

Note this quote from a parasitology textbook:
A parasite is defined as an organism of one species living in or on an organism of another species (a hetero specific relationship) and deriving its nourishment from the host (is metabolically dependent on the host). (See Cheng, T.C., General Parasitology, p. 7, 1973.)

This comes from an authority in the field. With so many sources citing the criteria of differing species, it is disingenuous, at best, to take a generalized definition and submit it above all of the other highly credible sources as the only source that matters.

The fetus is the same species as the mother so biologically speaking, the fetus is not a parasite. Now it is acceptable if one wants to make the case that a fetus exhibits parasitic behavior. There are certainly limited similarities. The fetus also shares some similarities to a car but it would be scientifically inaccurate to say that a fetus IS a car.

Why is this even being brought up in serious debate? The answer is that pro-choicers object to the usage of terms like child, or baby, when describing the fetus. They accuse us of emotionalizing the debate needlessly. So they have brought their own term for the fetus into the discussion in their own attempt to emotionalize the debate. The parasite argument is nothing more than a strawman meant to distract from the real issues of abortion.

Let me clarify a few things about parasite just to make sure we can put this to rest.

A parasite is always from another kind of species.
A parasite is an invading organism -- coming to parasitize the host from an outside source.
A parasite makes direct contact with the host's tissues, often holding on by either mouth parts, hooks or suckers to the tissues involved (intestinal lining, lungs, connective tissue, etc.).
A parasite is an organism that, once it invades the definitive host, will usually remain with host for life (as long as it or the host survives).

also, with few exceptions, a parasite will remain a parasite for it's entire life. It cannot survive without a host.

It is not scientifically accurate to associate a human fetus with a parasite.

Let me go one step further, Is it accurate to associate a Zygote, Embryo, Fetus with a baby, or a child?

Let me give you a definition of baby.

n. pl. ba·bies
a. A very young child; an infant.
b. An unborn child; a fetus.
c. The youngest member of a family or group.
d. A very young animal

From the online free dictionary we see that the unborn are considered a proper application for the term "baby'. A Google search will reveal many sources that list the unborn as a proper definition.

Let's look at "child"

n. pl. chil·dren
1. A person between birth and puberty.
a. An unborn infant; a fetus.
b. An infant; a baby.

Again we see that the unborn are included among the proper applications for the word child.

So where does that leave the pro-choicer? Well, they have every right to use the term parasite metaphorically, but they have no grounds to use it scientifically. However, pro-lifers still seem to be on very good ground for referring to the fetus as a baby or a child.

I am all about accuracy when it comes to this debate. I seek truth no matter what the implications are for me. I am open to correction on this, or any other topic.

I will stand corrected:
If I can be shown an example of a parasite in nature that is the same species as it's host. I suppose one might bring up the Angler fish as an example. This is not a true parasitic relationship though because it is their reproductive method, which means that it is a symbiotic relationship.

or If I can be shown a credible source of parasitology that specifies gestating unborn as meeting the criteria for classification of parasite.


  1. Very well done. Could not have done better myself. High volume of reference material, well articulated and soundly reasoned.


  2. Its accurate but the fetus isn't referred to as a parasite from a literal scientific point of view but from the point of view. A fetus is described as a a parasite because of the condition it places the woman in. All of the woman's resources, nutrients and future plans are diverted or altered towards that of the unborn, its referred to how the woman would feel specifically if the fetus is unwanted. Linguistically it is not uncommon to refer to other human beings as being parasites if they use or are dependent on someone else's resources to survive. For example those who are not in favor of public assistance refer to those on welfare as being parasites or adults who live off of a spouse etc. Any situation where someone places another in an unwanted position of having to be cared for.

  3. Sorry for the double post but I neglected to preview.

    Its accurate but the fetus isn't referred to as a parasite from a literal scientific point of view. A fetus is described as a a parasite because of the condition it places the woman in as hosting something that's unwanted. All of the woman's resources, nutrients and future plans are diverted or altered towards that of the unborn, its referred to how the woman would feel specifically if the fetus is unwanted. Linguistically it is not uncommon to refer to other human beings as being parasites if they use or are dependent on someone else's resources to survive. For example those who are not in favor of public assistance refer to those on welfare as being parasites. The term is used to describe any situation where someone places another in an unwanted position of having to be cared for.

  4. I appreciate the post, even anonymously. Open discussion is what drives my motivation to post blogs like this.

    I have heard many people refer to the fetus as a literal scientific parasite which is why I spent so much time refuting it from that standpoint.

    You do a fine job defending the use of the metaphorical parasitic fetus. There are limited similarities of course and I would like to reiterate that I have only seen this usage in debate as a counter measure to the pro-life tendency to refer to the fetus as a child, or baby. I believe there is better justification for the pro-life description as I have already pointed out but, again, I do not begrudge anyone from using any term metaphorically.

    Metaphors and analogies always have a limited life within a debate before the point gets lost, but they do serve a purpose. I normally try to avoid them personally.

    Thanks for commenting. I hope you get a chance to check out my other posts on this topic.

  5. I'm not sure if there is any real opposition to using the term child or baby. I mean women who are pregnant and want an abortion will say 'I don't want to have a baby' they don't say 'I want to remove this parasite'. I think those who are against legalized abortion use the term baby or child so that other's can attach themselves to the fetus as if it were a baby or a child and not an unborn fetus. Those who are pro-choice use the term parasite to remove such emotion. I believe that the only way not to tweak emotion in the debate is to say the issue is personal and should be relegated to the domain of the personal, which of course is the cornerstone of 'choice'. I mean what are the 'real issues' of abortion? Its about the life of the woman and her life as opposed to the fetus and its potential life. No matter what terms are used it will always get down to the battle between a woman's right to an abortion, control over her reproductive life and her circumstances or that of an unborn fetus. Does the unborn have more rights than the those who are already born? Does making abortion illegal actually stop abortion or simply banish women to unlicensed practitioners, botched abortions and potential death (in which case two lives are lost not just one)? Does society have the right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body? If not are we saying we will force women to go through an unwanted pregnancy? And if so what right do we have to do that to anyone. These questions remain no matter whether we call the fetus a baby or a child or a parasite. Because as history already outlines making abortion illegal doesn't stop desperate women from seeking abortion, it only means they risk death when they pursue it.

  6. I appreciate the reply. It would be nice to know who I am talking to if you care to share. I am happy to talk either way but you do have me at a disadvantage :)

    I agree that the moniker has little impact on the actual debate but spin is everything when it comes to political hot button issues. I am not a fan of spin so I am content to use the term fetus so long as we also refer to the "mother" as the host entity. I agree that the term baby or child is used with emotional attachment as it has been used that way since long before abortion was debated. I do disagree with you though that parasite is used to remove emotion. I have only seen it used recently as a counter emotive elicitor. The term has a negative connotation built into it. It does not remove emotion, it drives it.

    You stated that the issue is really a personal choice issue, in fact you say the "real" issue is about one life over a potential life. That is where I believe you err. The fetus is not potentially alive, it is very much alive and that changes that debate entirely. When we decide the value of someone's life based on the convenience of another's life we devalue all of human life. You elevate the value of the mother's life over the fetus, I value both lives equally.

    You asked me if society has a right to tell us what we can or cannot do with our bodies. My answer is yes! We have all kinds of laws that prohibit us from doing things with, or to, our bodies. In some cases we are even compelled to do things with our bodies by law, such as drug testing.

    I would have no desire to force an unwanted pregnancy on any woman which is why I do not believe that rape or forced insemination should ever be legal. That accounts for less than 1% of all abortions.

    I believe the woman should have full reproductive rights over her own body right up to the time a new life is created. I would even argue that a woman can abort her pregnancy so long as she does not kill the fetus in the process. Hopefully medical science will allow that one day.

    Pregnancy is a very natural result of sex. To get upset over a pregnancy is like getting upset over gaining weight from over-eating. Sex has a risk of pregnancy, drunk driving has a risk of accident, bungy jumping has a risk of death. If you engage in risky behavior you should be prepared to accept the risk without killing someone else in the process.

    I believe the "real" issue is a civil rights issue. All of human life should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no matter race, gender, age, or location. I do believe there are conditions where one's own actions can forfiet certain rights, but that is another issue.

  7. Okay you are saying that abortion is wrong and murder unless its under the conditions of rape. Are you saying that the fetus you consider life has a right to live under all circumstances except when the sperm was inseminated through rape? If life is sacred then there should be no exception no? This is an exception like capitol punishment. I mean its not the fault of the fetus that the mother was raped is it? So why make an exception? If its inconvenient for the mother then let her be damned no?

    Weight can be lost so why not a fetus? As a woman I find it very insulting that you would equate the lifelong, life changing consequences of being pregnant to that of being overweight. Yes pregnancy is a consequence of sex, but so what?

    All life has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unless its a fetus produced from rape?

  8. I had written a long post and it was not allowed to be posted since it was too long. I cut it in half but only the last half is displayed so I will try again; I hate doing that since long posts never come out as sweetly the second time around. Anyway

    You can call me redteddy if you like. I can agree there will be those who find the term parasite emotive but abortion will always be an emotional issue no matter which side of the fence one is leaning. Now I am assuming that you are against abortion based on religious beliefs. If someone doesn't believe in abortion for whatever reason then they are free not to have one, what I don't understand is why those who do not believe in abortion would try and force their beliefs on others who are in need of the service. I am not likely to change your mind on the issue, nor am I likely to change my pro-choice position, it has always been my belief that everyone should choose for themselves where they stand on this issue, what I am trying to do is understand why those who do not believe in abortion would have it banned for others. I for example disagree that abortion devalues all life. I could argue that it respects life by taking into account the life of the woman who could possibly die from a botched abortion as well as not bringing unwanted children who would suffer from abuse or neglect. Life is life and you value both the mothers and fetus equally but women died on illegal abortion tables along with the fetus. This is why women fought for legalized abortion not because they believed the fetus wasn't alive. For as long as abortions were banned women did not stop seeking the service, they just placed their lives at risk and so what you call a convenience was not convenient at all. Risking ones life is very inconvenient and yet they sought the service. What you call convenient abortions today I call safe abortions. The argument is that life is sacred and should be respected but we do not as a society believe that life should never be sacrificed no matter what. Society sends its sons and daughters to war to kill and be killed and it sanctions killing through capital punishment. Those who believe life is life sometimes resort to not eating meat and not condoning the sloughier of animals and yet there is no move to shut down slaughter houses and yet those same people would not argue it is wrong to kill a fly or unwanted insects. The skin cells are 'live' but we don't determine its sloughing as a loss of life. The standard by which we judge life and killing is relative. But if the life of the mother and the life of the fetus is of equal value then I would have to choose that which is born over the unborn.

    Pregnancy is a natural response to sex yes that is true but as a woman there is a big difference between the long term life changes of pregnancy and that of being overweight, unless you mean to say one can lose weight and one can also lose the fetus.

  9. I will try to respond to your points in order.

    I think you may want to reread my earlier post. I never said I support abortion in cases of rape.

    Weight gain is a lifelong, life-changing consequence of over-eating. The analogy actually works pretty well. Even after having lost the weight, there are still permanent changes that take place on the body. People can lose weight but there is a natural time frame for expelling it from the body, just as there is also a natural time frame when the fetus is expelled from the body. Weight loss doesn't have to take nine months but I guess it depends on how much one has to lose.

    I will call you Red if you don't mind. It's nice to meet you. How did you come across my blog?

    Your assumption about my basis for my pro-life position is incorrect. As we already covered, the Bible has very little to say about abortion directly. My reasoning for being pro-life is based on my own reasoning, medical data, and the law.

    I am refraining from commenting further on things that are based on a false assumption of my position, I hope you don't mind. For instance, I am not going to defend a stance of allowing abortion for rape when that is not my position, and I have no real comment about forcing beliefs on people since my pro-life views are not religious in nature.

    I will comment on your argument for abortion based on a desire to spare children from coming into a world unwanted, abused and neglected. I am compelled to ask how you can determine what condition of life is worth living for another person. Assuming the worst for that child, that they will die unwanted and alone from a tortuous death, How does it spare that child anything to kill them in the womb unwanted, alone and from a tortuous death? Many people have made something of themselves despite having begun under unfavorable conditions. If a child feels their life is not worth living, they always have the option of leaving this life by THEIR CHOICE. It is presumptuous for anyone to decide that someone else's life is not worth living.

    You continue to make an argument that women will kill their fetus' whether it is legal or not. First, we have seen a dramatic rise in abortions since RvW. You want me to feel sympathetic towards a woman who may be hurt in the process of committing a murder (speaking from the standpoint if it were illegal), Banning rape and murder in general has not rid the world of those crime. Would you suggest that we legalize those things because people are going to do it anyways, and may get hurt in the process?

    I understand there are times when a life is given but that is based on the person's own actions. One may give their own life for a cause, or they may forfiet the right to their life because of a crime. The fetus does not have a choice. Their life is taken from them.

    You mentioned skin cells again but I trust you understand that a fetus is of it's own DNA and genetic structure. It is not a waste byproduct produced by the host entity. Such as skin cells or other such living tissue.

    This can quickly become exhausting for both of us if we take on too many points at one time. Let's try to narrow the focus and walk through this in a more linear fashion if you want to continue. I'll leave it to you to determine the specific point and see if we can't come to an agreement on, at least, a few things.

  10. Well I was doing research for a forum of which I'm a member on this very subject and I read your piece and decided to make a comment. Sorry about my assumption and incorrect assessment on your thoughts concerning rape.

    First of all its not always the case that a women aborts to spare a child misery, though that can come into play, usually its because she isn't ready. I refer to abuse and neglect because these affects children all the time, if society put as much energy into the quality of life for the children that are here then I maybe I would buy all of the concern for the children that are not.

    I don't consider abortion murder so I don't see women who abort as murderers, I do not equate the unborn with the born and I don't believe the unborn to have rights over and above its host, the mother, a fetus is a part of a woman's body and if she does not want to raise or host the fetus then it is her right to do so, that's my position, just because the fetus has its own DNA does not make it a person, it has no name, no legal rights and according to the Guardian UK, it doesn't have consciousness. 'The human foetus feels no pain before 24 weeks, according to a major review of scientific evidence published today. The connections in the foetal brain are not fully formed in that time, nor is the foetus conscious, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.The findings of two reports commissioned by the Department of Health strike a blow to those seeking to reduce the upper time limit for having an abortion, currently at 24 weeks.The studies suggest that late abortions, permitted for serious abnormalities or risks to a woman's health, do not result in foetal suffering because of increasing evidence that the chemical environment in the uterus induces "a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation".'

    I can understand there are people who view this issue differently but what I don't understand is why other people, and dare I say it, especially men would want to impact the lives of other women by throwing them back in time and taking away their right to safe abortions. Women fought for this right, women died without that right, its estimated that 43% of women will have at least one abortion by the time they are 45. Is it, in your estimation, that women are somehow cruel murderers? I mean think about it, that's a staggering number, if women felt they were killing something then the numbers wouldn't be that high. If women didn't need the service it wouldn't be that high. But to address your previous point you don't know if there are actually more abortions since RvsW because there were no records for an exact estimation of how many women sought out self-induced abortions, there are some records based on the illegal abortion clinics. I imagine that in the secret life of women that there are more abortions than not, its just that women rarely talk about it. Married women with children as well as single seek abortions. The first recorded evidence of induced abortion, is from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BC. Its insane to believe that banning the practice will rid the world of abortions, all it would do is put women's lives at risk and increase their level of poverty and limit their life choices.

  11. How does it impact you personally if a woman somewhere, someone unrelated to you who's life you nothing about has an abortion? I mean outside the fact that you personally find it unfortunate or horrific.

    1. I can't believe I haven't responded in so long. I am sorry for leaving the conversation like that. I am sure something must have come up that kept me off the computer for a while. It was not my intention to avoid further discussion.

      You mentioned that the fetus is a part of the woman's body therefore subject to the woman's whim. You are inaccurate on that point. Everything concerning the fetus is seperate from the woman, even the placenta is grown from the fetus. The conceptus is completely seperate from the mother up to the time it attaches to the uterine wall. Then it become an entity that relies on another entity for survival. It does not become an appendage of the woman.

      Again I apologize for not revisiting sooner. I hope we can pick this back up.

    2. I never did answer your question. It does not impact me directly for a woman to have an abortion. It also does not impact me directly for a jew to be burned in an oven, or a black man to be beaten and lynched as a slave, or a woman to be raped and forced to marry her islamic abuser. Some things are just wrong on their own merit whether it affects me or not.

    3. Whether a fetus is a true parasite or not, it's undeniable that pregnancy puts a woman's physical and mental health at risk.

      You could never legally compel a mother to donate an organ to their child so that they could live. It's her risk, so it's her decision. So, if you cannot legally compel a mother to give one organ to help their child survive, then why should you be able to compel them to give their whole body to an unborn fetus?! The idea is ludicrous.

    4. Allowing someone to die of natural causes is different from killing them. You cannot compell a mother to give her organs away to save her dying child but it is reasonable for her to allow the temporary use of her organs to facilitate to development of the child that she created.

  12. The definitions you point to are the ones most commonly associated with those specific fields. In biology there is a specific term called "intraspecific parasitism."

    Therefore, your claim that the definition of parasitism necessarily excludes same species is not true.

    1. That term is in reference to a behavior, as in the avian population, where the parasitic action is to recruit the resource from others to sit on their own eggs by sneaking their eggs into other nests thereby freeing up their time for other pursuits. I acknowledged that the baby can exhibit parasitic behaviors, just as the average teenager often does. The argument that this post was meant to address does not normally argue for the parasitic behavior to be so benign. The argument that the fetus is a parasite has been presented as an actual, literal, comparison. Intraspecific parasitism is far more analogous in nature than the actions of say, the leech. Intraspecific parasitism refers to a parasitic-like behavior but one would not therefore classify the bird as a parasite.

  13. Shardoin,

    May I just say your original posting and your sparing with Anonymous are worthy of high regard. I had this debate with son yesterday. I will be bring your thoughts to bear with him today.

    Nicely done!!!


  14. To a previous Anonymous commentor you gave the following response: "You asked me if society has a right to tell us what we can or cannot do with our bodies. My answer is yes! We have all kinds of laws that prohibit us from doing things with, or to, our bodies. In some cases we are even compelled to do things with our bodies by law, such as drug testing."
    Could you please elaborate on that?

    1. The concept of bodily autonomy in the abortion debate is a misnomer. We do not have complete bodily autonomy in a society. I cannot do anything I want to my body or with my body. I cannot use illegal drugs. I cannot drink and drive. I cannot freely swing my fist into your body. There are laws that govern and limit the autonomous use of our bodies.
      The concept that is meant to be used in the abortion debate is bodily integrity; The idea that one cannot trespass the integrity of my body without permission. I think there are good pro-life arguments that show this is also misapplied in the abortion debate, but at least we are on the same page when we use the concept of bodily integrity instead of autonomy.