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.