What if the abortion debate was settled by one piece of legislation that compromised both sides?
That’s the premise of Neil Schusterman’s YA novel, Unwind. Imagine a future in which an all-out war between pro-life and pro-choice advocates brought us to a new policy? From now on, abortion is illegal, but at any point during childhood the parents have the right to “unwind” the child’s body, their organs being absorbed by others who need them. In this way, the children technically don’t “die,” they’re just reabsorbed into someone else. In this way also, the “not death” doesn’t take place when they’re babies, but when they’re teenagers. This twisted speculation really turns inward to the sickness of the present, in which the bodies of infants and the wombs of women are made the focus of the entire public eye.
How is this unwinding not death? As is explained to characters destined for unwinding, “100 percent of you will still be alive, just in a divided state.” This quote alone exemplifies the brilliant use of rhetoric to rephrase a sickening policy into a tolerable solution. Even though everything that makes the child who they truly are an individual is removed, every organ is still intact and therefore a linguistic loophole provides justification. Underneath is another tongue-in-cheek reference, perhaps, to the unity of a nation: A nation in a divided state over anything we still refer to as if it is still alive with…unity?
This new paradigm of living plays with the minds of small children. One character comes to the conclusion that “the true meaning of alone” is “realizing he doesn’t exist.” After, if we are still alive when our organs are in other people, then our existence is meaningless, and we are only a collection of our parts. We are not greater than the sum of our parts.
There is much to unwind from Schusterman’s book: The consequences of compromise, the root of what we value when we say we value life, the questions of existence, of being.
I wonder what Schusterman’s own views are on the issue of abortion. He may not have written the novel in order to express his views, but to merely get readers to question their own, to dig deeper into the question of what it means to be human. I like to think of if that way, because I think young people need to develop for themselves their own views on the issue based on philosophy and science, rather than merely accept what has been handed to them by their parents, or their favorite celebrities. While they should be taught what critical thinking tools can help them arrive at their decision, they should not have a view forced on them or be cheaply told that it’s mere the right view.
I do think there is a critique of both ends of the spectrum in the novel. On the one hand, the premise indicates the absurdity in merely sliding the bar over a few notches, ending the life of teenagers and merely claiming that is not death because, after all, whatever it is we used to think made them human clearly does not. On the other hand, I think his novel also critiques the absurdity with which many pro-lifers champion the rights of the unborn, yet do not seem to care what happens to you are born.
No matter what, I think Schusterman exposes a truth about political issues like abortion in the real world: It’s not easy. It’s not as easy, pro-lifers, as merely banning abortion. And yet, pro-choices, you can’t in your heart sit there and say it’s fine and dandy whenever a woman has an abortion. “In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved. In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world.” Solutions to issues require more than a piece of legislation or a single platitude. If abortion were outlawed, for example, countless people would need to step up and stop having sex, adopt lots of babies, and spend more money on taking care of poor children. Our arguments would then turn to handle these issues.
In interview, Schusterman said that he was partly inspired by the King Solomon story, “how the two women are fighting over the baby, and how Solomon proposes the idea of cutting the baby in half. What if one of those women didn’t let go? What if the two sides were so entrenched in their positions that they would rather see the baby cut in half than ever compromise? Unwind is what happens when society decides to cut the baby in half— figuratively and literally.”
Something tells me that Schusterman himself might be pro-life, but certainly not your typical pro-lifer. I think it’s possible that he, like myself, is a full supporter of the life rights of infants who, unlike many typical conservatives, believes that we have made an idol out of the pro-life stance, politicizing it to the point of disregard for why we stand for it.
There is hypocrisy in both camps, and like any good dystopian story, Unwind presents us with a world reflecting the absurdities of our own.
So if you have the time, and want a good thriller with mind-bending philosophical and political implications the whole family can enjoy, sit yourself, unwind for a bit, and read Neil Schusterman’s Unwind.