As a teen, especially in high school, I spent a lot of time at the local library. I volunteered there as part of the Teen Advisory Group. Teens these days have it good – whole rooms dedicated to them and not just a few stacks!
In my time among the teen stacks I discovered author Neal Shusterman. I haven’t read much of his work, but I’ve enjoyed what I have read. So I decided to re-read the first of series of his that I’d never finished – the Unwind dystology, as it’s called. It’s a not-so-distant possible future wherein a second Civil War (called the Heartland War) is fought over abortion. Though compellingly written and very interesting, something about the whole concept feels….disingenuous. Or rather than disingenuous, sort of off-target.
I could, potentially, see the country coming to blows about abortion – except I think the future of civil wars, at least in the U.S., will be less all-out physical fighting and more psychological warfare and pockets of resistance. Also, the way it plays out in this world doesn’t seem to make much sense: the American military manages to stop the fighting between the pro-life and pro-choice armies by suggesting legislation called the Bill of Life. This states that a pregnancy can be “retroactively terminated” up to age eighteen through a process called unwinding, provided the person is not actually killed. What is unwinding? Harvesting for parts. Except done in a “painless” way while the victim is still conscious (and therefore technically not “dying”).
Horrifying. Especially as Shusterman actually describes an unwinding from a victim’s point of view. Literally sickening. This book is not for the faint of heart nor the younger set. Truly, I shiver as I write this.
Supposedly, the military suggested this as a ridiculous solution to show the country how ridiculous fighting about it was – but instead both forces accepted the compromise. I still think that’s a compromise so ridiculous it would’ve been shot down, especially as abortion is specifically killing a child in the womb and killing outside the womb is still killing! especially if intentionally! – but then again, decades ago I’m sure the majority would’ve said the same about abortion.
The worst part of the compromise is that parents and guardians can have their children unwound for any reason. Even religions have absorbed the idea so that certain children are raised specifically as tithes – to be unwound and sacrificed for God. However, most people sign the non-rescindable unwind order because they have “problem” children – children who are depressed or have anger issues or are kleptomaniacs or are just struggling.
I appreciate what Shusterman tries to do – he presents various pro-life and pro-choice views, sometimes even mixed in one person, and makes them all sympathetic as people. And perhaps, as a vehicle for understanding each other’s viewpoints, the book could do good.
But he only makes one firm point towards the middle, in what could be seen as a throwaway conversation: one character, discussing when life and consciousness begins, says he doesn’t know, and that if more people were willing to admit that the world would probably be in a different situation. The implication seems to be that we should “stop fighting and talk it out and stop pretending we know what we should do,” as if the morality of the situation is so nuanced that it nuanced itself right out of existence.
I’m not saying there are no nuances to abortion and how society treats pregnant women in tough situations, especially for those who claim to be pro-life but treat pregnant women abominably through either misdirected compassion or anger and hatred.
But rather than saying people should admit they don’t know when life begins and start talking there, he should be encouraging us to get to the root of our disagreement. We should ask each other and truly listen to why we believe what we believe. Because as someone who is pro-life myself, I know – or to use more neutral terms, believe that I know, when life begins, just as much as someone who is pro-abortion perhaps believes that they don’t know (as far as I know, opinions are mixed but include that life begins at conception but that the child’s life is subordinate to the mother’s; as well as considering ending up on this side of the birth canal to be the beginning of life and humanity).
What people don’t understand is that, similarly now to the fundamental differences in Eastern and Western thought, Western society no longer has a common moral mindset or approach. Words used to describe moral concepts and phenomena no longer have the same meaning from person to person. So rather than saying, “Yeah, we all don’t actually know, we’re just pretending we do,” which while true for some is not true for all (humans are not always so wishy-washy for all that, we have beliefs whether we know them or not), we should say, “Let’s listen and probe to discover which mindset each of us is coming from.” Define our terms. Ask, “How do you define life? Why do you define it that way?”
Such an approach won’t cause a sudden agreement on abortion either way, but it will help us to understand each other and how to approach each other. And I say this in the spirit of desiring the truth – I believe that over and above what we want to believe truth is most important, so discussions and debates ought to be directed toward that purpose, and not for the sake of human pride or victory (though I am as guilty of desiring those as much as, if not more, than others).
But here, even, some will disagree because they don’t believe in objective truth, so our mindsets already diverge – and if they diverge on something so fundamental, you can see how differently our definitions must be, and therefore how wildly different our conclusions.
Lastly, Unwind seems to want to impress the seriousness of the issue on the reader; but in my view, by introducing unwinding, has created an issue that threatens to distract from its main theme. The two evils – abortion and unwinding – stem from essentially the same problem: human selfishness. But unwinding leaves room to object, “But these are already living people, of course we shouldn’t kill them, conscious or not; it’s pro-lifers fault for insisting we can’t abort pregnancies that we got into this mess,” to which anyone truly pro-life would say “we shouldn’t be killing them in either case!” It’s predicated on a whole separate conception of consciousness (assuming the possibility of one’s consciousness continuing to exist once one’s whole body – brain included – is torn apart) that doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to the topic of abortion.
(Even from this we can derive questions semi-relevant: does life equate to consciousness? How do you define consciousness? Simply, the question regarding abortion here would be does life require consciousness; whereas unwinding poses a question as to the possibility of consciousness in a state where consciousness, as far as we know, is usually terminated. Different questions.)
This is too great a subject to treat of in so few words, but I wanted to talk about it in the context of Unwind specifically, since this is a book review. And being quite the coward, but also conscious of the usual futility of internet debates, and this being my personal blog, I refrained from more strongly and confidently stating my views on the subject.