I recently read Unwind, a young-adult novel by Neal Shusterman. The main plot premise was a bit difficult for me to accept, which made it hard to get started with the book, but once I did get started, I found it pretty gripping. What’s more, in retrospect, I find it gives me something to think about here.
So here’s the premise (and this is not a spoiler since it is all over the book and discussed in the first few pages): Between the ages of 13 and 18 children can be “unwound.” That means that they are deconstructed and all of their parts are used for transplantation. In the view of society, they are not killed in this process, but rather dispersed. It’s a rather disturbing idea (which I think is why I had trouble accepting that a society would choose this path), to put it mildly.
There’s an additional detail in the book that I think connects up to some of the topics here. The parts that are used carry with them some shreds of the original person’s personality. (I suppose this is how people in the book can say that the original person isn’t actually killed.) So if you get the right hand of a kid who could play piano, the hand retains vestiges of the talent. The person whose parts you get becomes a part of who you are.
This isn’t the way we generally think about organ transplants. When a person receives a transplanted organ the identity of the donor is concealed, though there are exceptions. I’ve never read anything contending that a recipient needs to have access to the donor’s identity. You don’t read much about the donor’s identity becoming an aspect of the recipient’s identity (though you do read about gratefulness and connection.) Body parts are just body parts–precious, but not infused with our personalities, talents or identities. This is one of the ideas the book challenges us to consider.
Now while this isn’t how we currently think about transplanted organs, it is how some people think about third-party gametes. In other words, your heart may not carry with it the essence of who you are, but your sperm and eggs do. In this view, providing vital organs doesn’t create an identity linkage, but providing gametes does.
If I think about it from this angle, the distinction is striking and somewhat odd. Shouldn’t sharing a vital organ create a connection?
I know, of course, that when a heart is donated, the recipient doesn’t absorb the donor’s DNA. And that, I think, is the critical difference. When you use sperm from a person you are using their DNA to construct a new person. When you use their heart, you are just taking a part of them as a patch, I suppose. But still, if find the premise of the book a bit haunting. Perhaps it is a tribute to how much emphasis we put on DNA (and how little on other things) that lead us to treat these two sorts of connections so differently.