Unwinding the Abortion Debate in Young Adult Fiction

Currently in production is a cinematic adaptation of Neal Shusterman’s award-winning Young Adult novel Unwind. You won’t find any vampires, talking lions, or wizards here. Unwind is the story of three teenagers attempting to escape their fate: being sentenced to death by having all of their organs harvested.

Published in 2007, Unwind is a chilling look at the aftermath of the second civil war between pro- and anti-choice armies. Taking the current political climate to its furthest logical conclusion, Shusterman has created a near-future in which a truce between both sides was brokered by the government by the introduction of the Bill of Life. Coinciding with the perfection of a technique called neurografting, by which 99.8% of a donor’s body could be used in transplant, the Bill of Life proposed that abortion be made illegal, but a pregnancy could be terminated retroactively when a child reached the age of thirteen. This introduced the Unwind Accord, in which the retroactive terminations would see the children ‘unwound,’ their bodies not put to death but rather into a ‘divided state’ with all of their organs harvested for donation.

In Shusterman’s story, the military is a neutral force that tries to prevent both sides from killing each other.

“With the war getting worse,” says the Admiral, “we brokered a peace by bringing both sides to the table. Then we proposed the idea of unwinding, which would terminate unwanteds without actually ending their lives. We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason–that they would stare across the table and someone would blink. But nobody blinked. The choice to terminate without ending life–it satisfied the needs of both sides. The Bill of Life was signed, the Unwind Accord went into effect, and the war was over. Everyone was so happy to end the war, no one cared about the consequences.”

The story centers on three different teenagers who are scheduled for unwinding for different reasons. One is a ‘tithe,’ a child raised by a religious family to be their one-tenth donation to the Church as it says in the Bible. The other teenagers are ‘terribles,’unwanted by their parents and the State. Now that abortion is illegal, State Homes are institutions overflowing with unwanted children due to the Storking Initiative. Storking is a kind of nicky nicky nine doors in which newborn babies are left anonymously on the doorstep of any house. Once that door has been opened, the baby legally becomes the responsibility of the resident. The family can choose to keep the baby or send them to a State Home. As the population of unwanted babies grows at State Homes, the teenage population is culled to make way for the new arrivals.

“Which was worse, Risa often wondered–to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born? On different days Risa had different answers.”

The world Shusterman has created is a cold one, with callous laws and indifferent authority figures. Nothing in the story is dumbed down or sugar-coated; the children are born into a world in which their fates are rigidly controlled and the slightest mistake on their part could land them in a harvest camp to be disassembled.

The effectiveness of this story is its neutrality; the author doesn’t display a bias but presents a situation that naturally engenders critical discussion. Shusterman shows us a possible eerie result of a complex issue. It’s been hotly debated on a number of teen book forums whether the author is pro-choice or anti-choice. Arguments have been made for both points of view. One might say that someone who is anti-choice would never agree to the ‘unwinding’ of a child; but many people who are anti-choice also support the death penalty and the murder of abortion providers.

Unsurprisingly, in 2009 Unwind was one of several YA books on a hit list in Montogmery County High in Kentucky, a move fully supported by Dan Kleinman, a library watchdog who encourages concerned citizens to challenge any book they feel uncomfortable with in their local library and teaches his audience methods to oppose the American Library Association. Unwind was one of a number of books yanked from the curriculum This is a moving post by Risha Mullins, the teacher who was caught in the censorship shit storm.

Amazingly, this very same book is on a list of ‘must-read’ YA dystopian novels that are viewed as blatantly anti-choice on an Evangelical Christian blog.

How the media will treat the film adaptation of the book will be interesting to watch. This is a complicated story and seems as much a comment on the politics of war as it is on the politics of choice.

“You see, a conflict always starts with an issue–a difference of opinion, an argument. But by the time it turns into a war, the issue doesn’t matter anymore, because now it’s about one thing and one thing only: how much each side hates the other.”

Because Shusterman has so expertly removed himself from the argument by presenting both views, Unwind can either champion or damn both causes. In any case, it’s a thrilling page-turner and intelligently raises questions about bioethics, social engineering and personal freedom, relevant issues to all young adults.

Shusterman plans to follow Unwind with a sequel titled Unwholly in 2012.


About Roxanna:
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. It’s interesting how young adult fiction is often more willing to address controversial topics head-on than adult fiction is – although I guess that does raise the chance of censorship campaigns like the one you mentioned above. Which makes me just more convinced that it’s a book worth reading!

  2. I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately and there seems to be almost a sub-genre of dystopian fiction that is focused on bioethics, population control, social engineering and the hypersexualisation of teenage girls. It’s fascinating to me how the stories are interpreted by adults.

  3. The premise sounds like Kazuo Ishigiro’s “Never Let Me Go” for the tween set. In that novel the abortion issue isn’t highlighted, and the setting is an experimental “humane” boarding school for such children to reach university age before being “requisitioned” one organ at a time. Most such children are raised in squalor, not really portrayed in the book. This book is one of the few “genre” (SFF) books written by “literary” authors. Ishigiro won the Booker Prize for “Remains of the Day”, a better novel than “Never Let Me Go” in my opinion.

  4. Nancy, ‘Never Let Me Go’ is one of my favourite books.

  5. One more YA book I have to read! I’m with Sara, amazed–or maybe not–that YA books are tackling issues adult authors are loathe to touch. This one sounds un-put-downable.

  6. What a bizarre story. I don’t know, the plot doesn’t seem to represent what to me would be the logical extreme of the choice debates these days…

  7. Thanks for mentioning me and linking that particular blog post of mine. The comments there include those by a number of authors and the school superintendent himself. It really is an interesting issue, especially when it appears in my own comments!

  8. Juliana, science fiction plots always sound bizarre out of the context of the story. I think the author picked one of many possible outcomes if the debate was pushed to the extreme; the story takes place after a civil war between pro-choice and anti-choice armies so with that in mind I think he extrapolated a solution that would resolve the conflict. One of the characters acknowledges that the solution of unwinding was preposterous when put forth for negotiation and no one expected anyone to accept the outrageous scenario but they did. His point being that sometimes people just want to win, and logic and compassion get thrown out the window.

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