David Harsanyi

Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor, is accused of killing babies with scissors after botching late-term abortions -- among hundreds of other hideous acts. The doctor, it was reported, appeared confused by the charges against him at his arraignment last week. And if you're the kind of guy whose idea of a "botched" medical procedure involves someone's surviving, well, perhaps the charge is a distinction without much of a difference.

There were about 18,000 late-term abortions performed in this country last year, despite the increasingly rare medical need for such a procedure, despite the fetus's advanced neural development (including the ability to feel pain) and despite the baby's viability. Yet because this topic is encrusted with layers of cultural and political baggage, it goes on. The entire debate suffers from the same problem.

Though you probably didn't hear much about it, this week thousands of people marched for the pro-life cause in Washington and elsewhere. There were folks I generally don't hang with: Catholics for Life, Baptists for Life, Lutherans for Life -- no denomination left behind.

It had me wonder how many Americans avoid an honest look at the abortion issue because of the cultural dimensions of the debate. How many Americans instinctively turn to the pro-choice camp because pro-life proponents aggravate their secular sensibilities?

As Nat Hentoff, the noted civil libertarian journalist, once remarked, when he turned pro-life, his cohorts at The Village Voice wondered when he had "converted to Catholicism -- the only explanation they could think of" for his "apostasy."

It's unfortunate that abortion is a social issue, because it is science and reason that can turn the debate.

When a pregnant woman in my Denver neighborhood was recently struck by a hit-and-run driver, she tragically lost her child. Throughout the area, there was an outpouring of support and sadness. Some wondered whether the assailant should be charged with manslaughter. Or would it be murder?

A few commented -- in appropriate company -- that had the fetus been a few weeks younger, a doctor could have performed a surgical procedure on it and terminated its life, and there would be no grieving.

The fact is that if the mother had displayed sufficient mental anguish, she could have taken the drive up to Boulder that day and visited Warren Hern, a late-term abortionist, who could have called that "baby" a "fetus" -- a linguistic substitution with profound consequences for at least one human being -- and put an end to the entire arrangement.

Does life really begin on the say-so of a single person -- even the mother? Does her position or mental state change what a fetus is or is not? That kind of elastic calculation grinds against reason. Even our intuitive reaction to motherhood agrees. As Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is an ob-gyn, once explained, "people ask an expectant mother how her baby is doing. They do not ask how her fetus is doing, or her blob of tissue, or her parasite."

Most people, not very ideological to begin with, are probably too squeamish to reach decisive conclusions on abortion. They balance their views somewhere in the middle as they weigh societal costs and realities. Most, though, oppose late-term abortion.

There are consequences to the pro-life position, of course. Certainly an unwanted baby, a mentally anguished mother, illegal abortions and fewer choices are all terrible and real problems -- but none of them changes the reality of the procedure. Especially late-term abortions.

Other abortions are pretty safe, but they are not rare, either. We recently learned that 87,273 pregnancies were terminated in the New York metro area in 2009. The local ABC affiliate there reported that 60 percent of "non-Hispanic black" pregnancies ended in abortion. Hispanics had a 41.3 percent abortion rate. Overall, 41 percent of pregnancies in New York City were terminated with the destruction of the nascent human being, despite the widespread availability of birth control for both adults and children.

Now, if hearing that so many pregnant women choose to abort their children is alarming, surely the continued acceptance of third-trimester abortions is downright despicable.

Then again, I'm under no illusion that the debate is going to change in my lifetime. The Roe v. Wade decision -- made without considering evolving science or new facts -- ensures that the debate is purely academic for now. I'm certainly not under the delusion that every problem has an answer. But if the pro-life movement is going to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the nation, it's not going to need more God. It's going to need more reason.