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Abortion and the ethics of teen fiction

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Christian Concern's Tim Dieppe reviews the teen fiction book Unwind, by Neal Shusterman. 

Tim highlights the many ethical questions the novel raises about the soul and the value of life. He encourages parents to read it and discuss it with their teenagers.

My son persuaded me to read Unwind by Neal Shusterman, the first of the bestselling Unwind series of teen fiction books. This series, known as the Unwind Dystology, now stretches into six books and there are plans for a film series too. This first book has won as many as 28 awards.

The book is set in the future in America, sometime after the Second Civil War which was fought over abortion between Pro-life and Po-choice armies. In the end a compromise agreement was reached that satisfied both parties. This comprised a constitutional amendment known as 'The Bill of Life' which states 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." All the body parts are kept alive for harvesting and are used to replace body parts of others whose parts are damaged or sick.

One teenager is quoted in the book as saying:

"I was never going to amount to much anyway, but now, statistically speaking, there’s a better chance that some part of me will go on to greatness somewhere in the world. I’d rather be partly great than entirely useless."

****Spoiler Alert****

If you want to read the book (or see the film) without some aspects being spoilt then stop here and revisit this page when you have read the book yourself.

Key Features

The protagonists are teenagers whose parents have signed an unwind order, but who have managed to escape the system and are now faced with trying to survive till they are eighteen when they will be safe. One strategy for a girl in this situation is to get pregnant. They won’t unwind anyone who is pregnant as that would violate the constitution, so she gains nine months of freedom if she does so.

The law in this dystopian setting has developed a concept of 'storking.' This means that if you find a baby on your doorstep you are legally obligated to adopt it. If a woman is caught leaving a baby then she is obligated to take it back. Christians argue that the first example of storking is Moses who was left in a basket in the Bible.

Another disturbing religious idea is 'tithing' of children. Parents dedicate certain children to be tithed, agreeing from birth that this child will be unwound on their thirteenth birthday. This is supported by churches who teach that 'tithes' are very privileged people and that families who tithe are especially blessed.

What happens to the soul?

There is quite a lot of discussion about what happens to your soul when you are unwound. Does it continue to exist? Does it split into the various parts of your body? Does it stretch across the parts of your body? Could it cease to exist?

We are treated near the end to a description of what it is like to be unwound, and told that the doctors are legally obliged to keep you conscious throughout. The person being unwound continues communicating with the doctors as various body parts are removed and separated over a three-hour time frame, until he can only communicate by blinking, and then can’t communicate at all, but still hears what is going on.


Dystopian novels are not new. Many teenagers will be studying Lord of the Flies for GCSE exams. Part of the attraction of dystopian fiction is that it reveals something that we all know about human nature, but often try to deny. Human nature is essentially corrupt.

The evil that transpires in dystopian fiction is fascinating and intriguing to the reader precisely because it is realistic. Humans are capable of incredible evil. Whole societies can be essentially corrupt. Dare I say it in our world of cultural relativism, cultures can be corrupt! People can be persuaded to enforce and support thoroughly evil laws and systems. This is one of the reasons teenagers enjoy this kind of fiction. It exposes the haunting reality of the evil of human nature that few adults will openly discuss.


Ethics of Unwinding

Many ethical issues are raised in this novel. At one level, it makes clear that abortion is killing. But there is also a disturbing moral equivalence of the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The novel teaches that there is a soul which does not die. One character, who has had part of his brain replaced, suffers from a kind of multiple personality disorder. There are people who disobey the law to help the unwinds escape. The pastor of the tithe boy in the story changes his mind, and we find at the end that he has resigned as pastor because he no longer believes in a God who would unwind anyone.

Where does it leave teenagers?

The success of this series shows that teenagers quite enjoy thinking about moral issues and consequences. I don’t think anyone will change their view about abortion or the existence of the soul as a consequence of reading this book, but they will have thought about these questions. Teenagers are attracted to heroes who have the courage to fight against the system. Do they realise they can join the fight against all the ungodly systems and laws in their generation?

I found the book intriguing and captivating. I can totally see why it has been such a success. I recommend you get your teenagers to read it, and then discuss the issues involved with them. We need the next generation to passionately stand up for truth and justice and resist the secular tide of immorality. Would you like to be unwound?


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