Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Abortion Controversy

A new classroom textbook has just come out called The Abortion Controversy, edited by Lucinda Almond, which includes as a chapter an old paper I wrote years ago, along with other papers from a wide range of perspectives taken from many different sources. The book is intended as a classroom reader wherein all sides of a debate can be explored.

I haven't read the other chapters included in the collection, beyond a good skim, so I can't say whether the book has other merits, but the way my contribution was treated does not inspire confidence.
As the Secular Web owns my original essay (and it's already available for free) I didn't ask for a royalty, which is fine. But I carelessly didn't ask to see a galleys before approving publication. Lesson learned. I'll have to be an asshole in the future.

For my part I have nothing good to say about this book and
I don't recommend it. As for the rest, the one good thing I can say is that it includes papers one might not readily encounter elsewhere (such as an article defending the murder of doctors who perform abortions), but if these have been treated as mine was, their authors might not recommend this book either.

To be fair, my complaints are not enormous, but cumulatively they sink the book in my opinion. Here is a list of what went wrong:

1. Bad Abstract

Right out of the gate, the table of contents abstracts the thesis of my article as "There are no universal moral truths; therefore, abortion cannot be labeled as immoral." Anyone who actually reads the chapter, even as edited, will see not only that this is not its thesis, but that in fact it argues exactly the opposite, that there are universal moral truths (as specifically distinguished from personal principles), yet the facts do not elevate abortion into a violation of them. I can only conclude that whoever wrote that abstract did not actually read the whole paper (not even the version they printed), or else they lack even rudimentary reading comprehension skills. Neither would bode well for the treatment of other chapters in the book.

2. Bad Deletions

The chapter in question is an edited copy of my opening statement for A Secular Case Against Abortion?
The Carrier-Roth Debate (2000), which remains rather unique in that both sides were committed secularists and yet Roth vehemently defended the pro-life position, indeed without compromise, whereas I defended the pro-choice position with some compromise. I actually argued that at least elective late term abortion is immoral and could legitimately be outlawed, a concession not often heard among the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement. Thus both sides of this original debate are interesting in themselves.

I certainly understand why the editor could only fit my opening statement in the book, and many of the paragraphs and sentences they removed make perfect sense for saving space without much loss of substance. But some of their deletions were rather serious and actually harm the logic of the piece. For example, they cut all the material where I explained why I agreed with the pro-life community on the questionable morality and acceptable illegality of late term abortion. In other words, everything that made my position both moderate and interesting (this material is what is lost behind the first ellipsis indicated on page 39). But more importantly, it was this section of my statement that made the transition to the next section far more intelligible than they have left it. Decisions like these do not indicate good editing, and I can only assume some of the other selections have been similarly damaged.

Finally, though ellipses are indicated where deletions were actually made, it is not explicitly stated that material was cut from the essay (or how much), so some readers might not even notice that they don't have the whole thing.

3. Bad Dating

They list the piece as published in 2005. This is wrong. It was published in 2000. That's a rather significant error, not least because my position and knowledge of the matter have significantly matured (as has my skill as a writer). Anyone who further investigates my work, or the Carrier-Roth debate, might become confused into thinking this article was written the same year I published Sense and Goodness without God, yet in fact that book contains and reflects a substantial evolution of my thinking in moral and political philosophy (and is, for the most part, a lot better written).

More importantly, the wrong date improperly contextualizes my article, since a great deal happened in the abortion debate over the ensuing five years. Some of my original statements are historically obsolete or reflect information that is now out of date. For example, the "partial birth abortion" controversy had not yet hit its full stride, and as a result of debates and research in the following years surrounding the congressional action to ban it, more information became available (to me and everyone) that has changed the picture a bit. For instance, the frequency of different kinds of late-term abortion procedure is now better known, including the established fact that it is happening electively (albeit rarely), a fact unknown to me in 2000. Hence my statements about that now would have to be corrected.

The online version won't be updated since it must reflect the actual debate that happened in 2000, but any good reader who knew my paper was written in 2000 would at least be aware of the fact that it is old, and would know where it fits chronologically relative to the other chapters in the book. Though I can't be sure they haven't been misdated as well.

4. Bad Citation

Making all these matters worse, the book does not give a proper URL for the debate or my original statement. It only gives the URL for the Secular Web, which does not help, and is unprofessional citation practice anyway. Someone who wants to find the complete original or read how the rest of the debate went will have a bit of difficulty figuring out where it is in the Secular Web page tree.

No one of these gaffes sinks the book for me. Though I would chide the editor for any one of them, all of them together is just enough to capsize it. If this is how my entry was treated, I don't have much confidence that the other entries have been better handled. As for my actual fans and detractors, you needn't waste your time with this book, since you can get a much better version online, complete and for free.


MechanicalCrowds said...

Hi. I just watched a video of a debate that you had participated in on youtube. I was impressed with the scientific & logical soundness on your part. The arguments on the atheist side just made a lot more sense as usual.

I am an atheist myself but I'd be very interested in getting a response from you on my post/question The Mad Terrorist Thought Experiment.


Ben said...

Just a note. My comment is actually about half a dozen new books that are on their way to your house. Enjoy.

However since I hate getting unrelated comments, I'll go ahead and say I've successfully implemented the information you provided in your online essay/debate on abortion in an agonizingly long debate of my own and am extremely thankful for it as I did not have a detailed position until then.

Ben said...

Oh yeah, and if you visit my xanga any time soon, you'll find the banner contains a picture of yourself in a yellow wig and wearing a familiar barbarian outfit with the tacky but cool declaration, "I have the explanatory power!" I hope this isn't offensive. It makes me laugh every time I see it.

Richard Carrier said...

Uh, okay...assuming these weren't joke posts...

MechanicalCrowds: Not exactly on topic. But where is the The Mad Terrorist Thought Experiment?

Agnostics_R_Us: Thank you! I am always very grateful to receive books. I'm also glad my work had been of any help to you. But you'll need to point me somewhere more specific to see the banner at xanga you are referring to.

Ben said...

BTW, the books are an investment in my worldview. I figure if you read them then you'll be more informed and if you are more informed that can only trickle down to me eventually through the secular web. Thus I plan to be quite charitable. No joke, they will show up soon. You already got the other two from last time, right?

You can find my banner at

You can't miss it. I can't wait for you to see it! lol

Richard Carrier said...

Agnostics_R_Us: I've actually received several books from fans (in history of technology, history of science, and other subjects). I just got three on ancient religion, which I conclude were from you. And I did finally find your page at xanga on my own, but thanks for the full URL (other readers will find that convenient). That banner's frickin' hilarious. I LOL!