Thursday, August 15, 2013

Shusterman Envisions a Strange Resolution to the Abortion Debate

by Neal Shusterman
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
3 Out of 5 Stars

I'm a little on the fence about this one. Shusterman has created a fully realized future, and that's definitely part of the genius of this young adult novel. When authors write about the not-too-distant future, the world about which they write is completely unrecognizable (too many new gadgets, too many new species from outerspace, too many shifts in cultural view) which is fine but, for me, it sometimes causes a disconnect. I can't really empathize or identify with the characters because I can't relate. Shusterman's future is at once recognizable and vastly different from our own, which only adds to the horror of Unwind

In the novel, children who are unwanted at the age of 13 (for a variety of reasons: they're juvenile delinquents, they're not artistically talented enough, they fail to show intellectual prowess, or they have simply been abandoned) can be "unwound" for spare body parts. Because medical science has perfected a process that allows for every part of the unwind's body to be grafted onto the recipient's body and because the unwind never "dies" (the unwind is awake and conscious through the entire process), then this practice is acceptable because it saves the lives of others without technically ending a life. Medical science no longer bothers with trying to cure disease; they simply replace affected body parts with healthy young ones. 

In addition to this fascinating premise is the shift in religous thought. Parents who are zealous in their religious beliefs begin tithing their 10th child to show their piety to God and, in this world, it's easy to attain 10 children as the practice of "storking" is acceptable by law. Storking is the law that allows the mothers of unwanted children to dump their children on the doorstep of an affluent house, so long as they are not caught in the act of doing so (even this act is religiously based; the law cites the story of Moses as the first "storking"). The "storked" family is required, by law, to take the child into their own family--thus, tithing also becomes a socially acceptable way of getting rid of children one does not want. Tithed children are raised from birth knowing that they will be unwound and are accordingly treated like martyrs.

Here's my main complaint with the novel. All of the above sounds like an intriguing premise, but I find fault with the catalyst for all of this social change. In the novel, the abortion issue becomes such a heated debate that it eventually leads to the Second Civil War, known as The Heartland War, in which the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice proponents literally go to war. After a prolonged battle in which we can assume many lives were lost, the process of "unwinding" is proposed as a compromise to end the war. Since a child can be retroactively unwound at the age of 13, the Pro-Choice side is appeased and, since the child never technically dies, the Pro-Life side is appeased. To which I call "bullshit." Because such a solution doesn't take into account the motivation behind each side of the issue. 

Granted, there are shades of gray all over the place when we talk about abortion, but, for Pro-Choice proponents, the issue is about a woman's right to have control over her body and not be forced into an unwanted pregnancy. So how would being able to unwind a kid later on appeal to the Pro-Choice advocates? If a kid is 13, they're now a separate entity from the mother and, in addition, the mother has already had to endure the physical part of an unwanted pregnancy. Kind of defeats the whole premise of the Pro-Choice argument, no? And as for the Pro-Lifers, I think it's safe to say most are fundamentalist Christians who would never be like, "Oh, so the kid doesn't 'die' since he or she is still alive when we slice and dice them? Well, golly gee, why didn't we think of this sooner?" If that were okay with them, then I think they might not be so vocal on the stem cell debate as, technically, that's what unwinding is--using one life to save another life. 

So in the final analysis, I think that's where Shusterman dropped the ball. Granted, it could be argued that both sides might be willing to consider such a flawed proposal simply to end a violent and bloody war, but I doubt it. Still, I would highly recommend the book for its intended audience as it presents an action-based story that's not didactic in its presentation of the issue and will motivate teenagers to think about it in new and different ways. 

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