I put Unwind on my list of Dystopian Novels with Pro-Life Themes along with The Declaration by Gemma Malley and Children of Men by P.D. James. I had only read a synopsis of the novel but it sounded as if it might belong on that list.
Now I think it’s a little more, and a little less, complicated, than the title to such a list would imply. The author, Neal Shusterman, tries to straddle the line between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” arguments all the way through the novel to very end. Toward the end of the story, one of the characters preaches to an audience of Unwinds, teenagers slated for death by dismemberment for the benefit of those in need of an organ transplant:
“I don’t know what happens to our consciousness when we’re unwound. I don’t even know when that consciousness starts. But I do know this. We have a right to our lives! We have a right to choose what happens to our bodies! We deserve a world where both those things are possible—and it’s our job to help make that world.”
Those words echo both sides of the abortion debate quite faithfully.
The world that Shusterman creates is a compelling one. To end the Heartland War between the Life Army and the Choice Brigade, the Bill of Life is conceived and signed. It says that “human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively ‘abort’ a child . . . on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t ‘technically’ end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding.'” You can see the possibilities in such a set up: possibilities for exploring both pro-life and pro-choice arguments and weaknesses. And Shusterman does explore. He raises questions such as:
What happens to unwanted babies when no abortions are allowed? (I think his scenario in this case is rather weak and unlikely since the sort of thing he portrays didn’t happen much before abortion was legal in the first place.)
Is it better to die or to be “donated” in pieces to those who are in need of new body parts?
What is a soul, and when does a human become a living soul?
What happens to that soul or consciousness or life when you die?
What if you don’t die but rather your organs, even your brain, could live on in other bodies? Then, what happens to You? Are you really still alive?
Is every person truly valuable? What about fetuses? What about criminals and delinquents? Are you still valuable even if no one assigns value to you, if no one loves you?
Is suicide terrorism ever justified?
The answers to these questions in the novel are ambiguous, and the reader can read a lot of his own prejudices into the story and find support for whatever point of view he brings to the reading in the first place. Or one can take the novel’s questions as food for thought and come away with some awareness of or even appreciation for “the other side” of the abortion debate.
I came away with a renewed commitment to life and the sacredness of life at all stages from conception to death. But I did catch a glimpse of what fears the pro-choice people are harboring and of what a chasm there is between the worldview of a pro-life activist and that of an abortion defender.
And I did think Mr. Shusterman should be commended for writing a fine story.