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Embryo? Foetus? Human?

Not sure which term to use? Ever wondered at what point the baby growing inside you comes to be known as being a human in their own right? Legislation has changed over the years to reflect changing definitions and organisations have offered assistance as well. Here is a breakdown of the major stages that have arisen through a legal lens.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 s 1, defines an embryo as ‘a live human embryo where fertilisation is complete…fertilisation is not complete until the appearance of a two-cell zygote’. The embryonic stage is not considered complete until the end of week eight, at which point it becomes a foetus.

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) explain the development behind the change in label. ‘Around eight weeks the baby’s cartilage skeleton begins to turn into bone. The body is essentially complete. Now the baby can be referred to as the foetus’.[1]

The European Court of Human Rights case of Vo v France reviewed the opinion of the French Criminal Court that considered the point of viability as the cut-off for when a foetus becomes a human. They recorded that the French Court decided that “a foetus becomes viable at the age of 6 months; a 20 to 21 week-old foetus is not viable and is not a ‘human person” (Vo v France (App no: 53924/00) ECHR 8 July 2004). Notably, this ties in closely to UK law providing 24 weeks as the cut-off for when a termination could be performed (Section 1 Abortion Act 1967). However, the French Court’s decision was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that something that is scientifically uncertain is devoid of legal effect. Regardless of law the fact there is debate around this stage does show it is a significant milestone in the development of the foetus.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act s 6(a) provides ‘woman and man include respectively a girl and boy (from birth)’. This informs us that woman, man, boy, girl can only be applied to pregnancies that have reached their conclusion and another person is born.  SPUC provide a succinct definition of the moment of birth. ‘The umbilical cord is cut…the baby no longer needs a direct life support system as he or she can now breathe air and take milk’.[2]

Whilst public opinion on this issue will always fluctuate and also be subject to any individual’s personal views, these milestones provide useful markers for definitions that we can use when referring to a baby’s development:

  • 0 days – 8 weeks = embryo
  • 8 weeks – birth = foetus
  • *At 24 weeks, a foetus cannot be aborted and they are capable of surviving if born premature.
  • Birth = baby


[1] ——, ‘Human development of the unborn child’ (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children webpage, 2017)<>

[2] Ibid.

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