Years ago, a client asked me to review and edit an environmental impact statement on the disposal of large volumes of soil contaminated with low-level radioactive wastes. The preferred option was long-term, above-ground storage adjacent the runway of a major metropolitan airport. I no longer remember the numbers, but I did calculate the height of a straight-sided pile covering the entire available acreage for storage. The result was a pile so high that it created a hazard to departing and arriving flights. Obviously, the pile could not be set back from the boundaries and sloped according to standards, and still fit the designated area. So the preferred option was abandoned, mentioned only in the EIS to explain the reasons for dismissing it from consideration.
I have taken the same approach—look at the implications of the numbers—in the recent controversy over the killing of Dr. Tiller. Pro-life supporters assert that Dr. Tiller killed 60,000 babies or that he claimed to have performed 60,000 abortions. The math makes it implausible to the point of absurdity that he did or said anything of the sort. At the rate of one abortion an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week for fifty weeks, he would perform 2,000 abortions in one year. To perform 60,000 abortions would require 30 years.
Plainly, the number is not a fact and was never the basis of a claim. The number lends itself to characterizing Dr. Tiller or his practice by one or another ugly metaphor—say, babykiller or butcher shop—but such figurative and inflammatory language do not serve the truth and depart even farther from the realm of plausibility. No doubt, the number will continue to be bandied about because it is impressive in the service of ideology and politics. It lets pro-lifers justify the killing of Dr. Tiller, despite their pious protestations to the contrary, by the implied argument: one death as small retribution for 60,000 deaths.
A zealous Las Cruces pro-lifer makes this point clear: “As a mass terrorist that he was, he still should not have been killed by the nut job who pulled the trigger. But that’s what you get when people advocate pro choice policies.” The writer equates a doctor practicing according to law and making no effort to intimidate or terrify anyone with a “mass terrorist” who violates the law and uses violence to terrify people for political or religious ends. Worse, aside from the ill-concealed gloating over Tiller’s death, the writer maintains something even more twisted: a denial that the killer was pro-life and a view that pro-choice policies cause the killing of abortionists. This zealot writes that “This was not a pro life person…. From what I have read (media) it was a pro choice person who chose to murder Tiller the killer.” No source is give for this bizarre claim that pro-choice advocates are driven by their positions to kill pro-choice practitioners and thus are responsible for Dr. Tiller’s murder. On this issue, the misuse of numbers and language reflects the corruption of truth and ethics.
More, the self-justification for such misuse reveals that zealots are idolaters for whom their god is a fertilized egg worshipped by vituperative words and violent deeds against abortionists. In America, there is nothing democratic or Christian about such a position, and it is one reason why the kind of temperate discourse which Obama called for at Notre Dame—while protesters labeled him a babykiller for advocating a right to choose—is probably not possible. Anti-abortionists simply deny the ordinary political and religious standards and restraints which make reasoned and civil discourse possible.