The Freudian Slip of “It”


The English language is a fascinating one. It changes, morphs, takes in words from everywhere on earth, adapts, discards, plows on. Its spelling is challenging, because words’ spellings reflect their origins and the journeys they’ve made to reach modern English. Sites like World Wide Words offer a plethora of information and odd facts (and free weekly e-newsletter).


What haven’t changed for many centuries, however, are the pronouns English speakers use to describe human beings in the singular: she and he. We don’t vary that. In Sweden, there’s a small movement to popularize a gender-neutral pronoun that still indicates humanity (“hen” in addition to hon which applies to females, and han for males), but in English-speaking countries, we’re a long way from that. She, he, that’s it.


Not it, that is. We don’t use “it” to refer to humans.


Which makes the use of “it” perplexing in pro-life, anti-choice writings. If you really believe that a fertilized egg is a human being from the moment of conception, then why are you using “it” to describe said zygote? She, or he, or s/he, or even he or she. If you really believe.


Anti-choice text writers struggle with this. They tend to repeat “fertilized egg” or “zygote” or “embryo” in order to avoid the use of “it”, but so far – I’ve searched online – they have yet to use the correct personal pronouns. Once the embryo reaches the fetal stage, then it’s “baby” and “he” or “she”, but rarely – never? – before then.


Look, I don’t believe that life begins at conception. Potential human life, yes, but only potential; especially since 15% of known human zygotes do not make it to birth. Many more zygotes fail to implant in the uterine wall before a woman even knows a fertilized egg exists, which raises the rate of miscarriage to at least 33% and perhaps much higher. (Medically speaking, miscarriage is called spontaneous abortion and is usually caused by a genetic flaw in the fertilized egg.)


So I have no trouble using “it” to describe a zygote, embryo or fetus.


But if you do believe that human life – not potential, but life – is created when the head of a sperm cell penetrates an egg cell, then you ought to align your language with your belief. Shake off the shackles of “it” and use the English pronouns she and he.


Unless, of course, your use of “it” is a Freudian slip.



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