Imagine a world where a civil war has been fought over abortion, and the compromise that ended the war was The Bill of Life, a document that essentially postpones abortion by making it illegal to tamper with life from the moment of conception up until age 13. In the teenage years, however, parents may choose to have a child “unwound” into parts used in organ transplants. Improbable as it sounds, this is the premise of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series. If you can ignore how preposterous the premise is, Unwind is a page turner that will suck you into the world of teenagers who are trying to escape the fate of being unwound – if they can simply make it to adulthood, they will no longer be eligible for unwinding.
But as a portrayal of the abortion debate, the novel embodies the core misunderstanding of pro-choice advocates that has dominated some recent debates about Planned Parenthood – a debate that has propelled recent Congressional efforts to defund a leading provider of women’s healthcare unless they cease performing abortions. To Planned Parenthood’s critics and the pro-choice advocates of Unwind, abortion is about killing one life in order to use their tissue in a way that benefits the living. And while Shusterman’s portrayal of pro-life advocates isn’t accurate either, in Unwind those advocates can at least be given some benefit of the doubt, since they may have assumed no parent would be willing to unwind a 13-year-old child. For pro-choice advocates, that’s supposed to be the benefit of the compromise: the only thing that satiates their desire to kill fetuses is the promise of killing teenagers instead. For some readers, that glaring plot hole may be enough to kill all suspension of disbelief.
If the unwinding is taken as a literal representation of abortion, then it’s a grisly process of killing a developed individual, an individual who is autonomous – and in this case, not living inside another person’s body.
But what, precisely, is an abortion? To many pro-lifers, an abortion is the murder of an unborn baby. And the use of “baby” is key – a baby isn’t a cluster of cells. A baby is fully formed and capable of surviving outside the mother’s body. So calling abortion the murder of babies makes the issue sound simple. To the pro-choice camp, abortion is a much more complicated decision: abortion generally takes place before the fetus has developed into a baby who could survive outside the womb. And when performed early enough, abortion may take place before the developing life is more than a cluster of cells. From this perspective, abortion is preventing a baby, rather than killing one.
When seen in its full complication, abortion destroys one potential in order to replace it with another. And that’s where The Chronos Files, a YA time travel series by Rysa Walker, comes in. Unlike Shusterman, Walker does not frame her series with a 20th-century debate about abortion. In fact, the topic of abortion never directly comes up, but characters use Chronos keys (time travel devices) to edit and rewrite history, and in the process characters are sometimes unborn. In some cases this process is violent and direct, while in other cases people are simply never conceived in the first place.
But these time travel abortions are often two-edged swords. When history attempts to erase the characters readers know, the painful side of abortion and miscarriage is evident. A man kills a pregnant woman before she can give birth, effectively aborting both her children and her grandchild. The series’ protagonist, who is only protected from being erased by the Chronos key around her neck when the change takes place, spends an entire book restoring her mother’s birth and thus her own. But Walker doesn’t shy away from the cost of restoring the protagonist’s birth: in the alternate reality where she was never born, an alternate version of her father has two children. Those two children cease to exist when she restores her own version of history.
That double-edged sword is perhaps a more accurate portrayal of abortion. For both sets of my grandparents, unplanned pregnancies led to unhappy marriages, as well as additional children with that same individual. And I, like Walker’s protagonist, wouldn’t undo those births. Without those births happening the way they did, I wouldn’t be me. But if I could go back in time, I also wouldn’t prevent my 18-year-old grandfather from sleeping with my 14-year-old grandmother, even though it’s not something I agree with ethically, since those unwise decisions are what led to my life as I know it. So I don’t prefer the path they took because it would have been wrong to terminate their pregnancies – I prefer it because it’s the one that led to me.
The world is full of people who wouldn’t be in our lives if they hadn’t been born. But the world is also missing people who would be in our lives if only someone had broken commandments about sexuality and had intercourse without waiting for marriage. For instance, if I had followed my paternal grandmother’s path I could have had 4 children by the time I was 18 like she did. And if I had forgone birth control for the past year and a half (the entirety of my marriage), I would quite likely have a child and another on the way, given both our family histories. Imagine that: two people who could have been, but who aren’t. For Mormons, the use of birth control is left to the individual. But according to some religions, I’ve committed something similar to abortion by even using birth control.
Determining when an abortion kills an actual person is difficult. 2 weeks into a pregnancy (technically called week 4 of the first trimester), there’s a cluster of cells. 4 weeks in, a pregnancy doesn’t look like a person. I imagine we can all agree that it’s not an abortion if conception never takes place, and that it’s murder if a newly-born baby that’s breathing on its own outside its mother’s body is then killed. But in between, where does it shift from preventing a baby and turn into destroying one?
So no, an abortion isn’t the abstract experience of rewriting time that occurs in The Chronos Files: something is lost through abortion, whether it is a fertilized egg, a cluster of cells, or a fetus that may have been viable if born prematurely. But abortion also isn’t the dismembering of a teenager that happens in Unwind. It’s something much more complex, and it’s something we don’t fully understand.