What Would Nietzsche Do? Nietzsche and Abortion; or Kermit Gosnell as the Superman

If you have not heard of the Kermit Gosnell case by  now, you may consider your self fortunate.  It is as disturbing as it is revolting, and those of you who need further details can consult this essay by Connor Friesdorf at the Atlantic if you want to peruse the gruesome particulars.  That is not the subject of my post.  Nor am I all that interested in debating the morality of abortion, since that is hardly a question for me anymore.  When I was still an atheist, I simply did not think the question mattered, since human life was meaningless to me anyway; having embraced Christian faith, I can see that, really, deep down, I always knew it to be wrong, but I simply didn’t care.  Faith, I suppose, gave me that reason; or rather, faith in Christ made me see my own life as meaningful in an ultimate sense, and it therefore follows that all other human life has ultimate meaning as well, I being no different than any other.  (There was more to it than that of, course, but more on that anon.) I am not concerned here with arguments about abortion, pro or con; this is one of those matters on which arguments are helpful, but not really central to the debate at hand, if by arguments one means a sort of academic or scholastic arrangement of propositions and conclusions.  The debate over abortion is obviously a matter of intuitions, which, to be sure, have their own hidden logic, but which are primarily about the “gut” rather than the mind.  Which is what brings me to Friedrich Nietzsche.

I have recently returned the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) to my Western Civ classes, this time in the form of a “Nietzsche Reader” which I had to discuss with my students.  During the time I was preparing to teach him for class, I first became aware of the Gosnell case, and ever since, a question has seized my mind, and won’t let go:  would Nietzsche have approved of what Kermit Gosnell was doing?  Or abortion more generally?  To some, this may seem an obvious question; Nietzsche certainly expressed the belief, on more than one occasion, that “ascending life” ought to impose itself on “descending life,” to the point of doing away with it; indeed, his major complaint against Western philosophy/Christianity/modernity was precisely the fact that it encouraged the keeping alive of declining types, to the exclusion of the ascending type.  As he put it in Twilight of the Idols, “to create a new responsibility, that of the physician, in all cases in which the highest interest of life, of ascending life, demands the most ruthless suppression and sequestration of degenerating life–for example in determining the right to reproduce, the right to be born, the right to live” (Hollingdale, p.99)  Thus it would seem, taking this text as a starting point, that Nietzsche, whose ideas were to help inspire the Nazis, is merely articulating the sinister aspects of his philosophy.  Nietzsche would favor abortion, at least for the weak, the malformed, something that is increasingly the case, as fewer and fewer babies are born with Downs Syndrome, thanks to modern prenatal technology.

With the abortion debate more generally, there is also a certain parallel between the justification that many pro-choice advocates use for their cause, namely the right of the woman to control her own body, with Nietszche’s emphasis on the will to power:  the unspoken implication of the right to control one’s body is that such control involves the exercise of power over the unborn child.  And power, of course, is his key descriptor of how humans actually behave.  Thus Nietzsche:

However much utility and vanity, those of individuals and peoples, may play a part in grand politics: the strongest tide which carries them forward is the need for the feeling of power, which from time to time springs up out of inexhaustible wells not only in the souls of princes and the powerful but not least in the lower orders of the people…When man possesses the feeling of power he feels and calls himself good: and it is precisely then that others upon whom he has to discharge his power feel and call him evil.  [Daybreak, 189]

Of course, the unborn child cannot call the abortion doctor or its mother evil; it is left to the pro-life protesters to speak for the them.  But it adds to the impression that something Nietzschean is at the heart of it, and that he would favor something like abortion precisely because of the exercise of power involved in it.

And yet, there is something not quite right about this picture.  For starters, it is not really the woman who has direct control over the unborn child, but the doctor, and so it is he (most abortion doctors are men, from what I can tell) and not the mother to be, that really has the power, but the expert.  I guess that doesn’t make much of a difference, if the feeling of power is all that is at stake, but I can’t help thinking that wouldn’t fly with Nietzsche.  After all, he detested the bourgeois obsession with security (“security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity,” Daybreak, 173), not to mention the cult of technology and science which makes “safe” abortion possible in the first placed.  But even more than this, Nietzsche’s ideal Übermensch is predicated on the ascetic overcoming of harsh suffering, of the contradictory forces within himself, on being one who can complete a “victory over strength” (Daybreak, 548), who must “grow better and more evil…the most evil is necessary for the superman’s best” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, “Of the Higher Man,” 5).  None of this sounds like the middle class women who seek abortion for “elective” reasons, nor those women in difficult situations who seek abortion either.  Now, Kermit Gosnell, with his ghoulish, serial killer like tendency to keep aborted babies in jars, might fit the bill, though I have not read enough about his motivations to say for anything for certain.  To me it seems just as likely that he is a moral retard who merely wanted to make money from his “profession,” without any inkling what he was doing was wrong.  To put it another way, he might be less like Nietzsche’s Superman and more like Adolf Eichmann.

So, what would Nietzsche do in a case like this?  Clearly, he would have no beef with abortion per se, but I can’t think but that he might be a little disgusted by the things that Gosnell did—not out of normal, human decency, mind you, but because the smallness of the victims involved would be unworthy of the “higher” type he thought could and should destroy the petty moral codes of mere mankind.  One could reap hardly any kind of transgressive glory from such a “feat.”  I’d like to imagine Nietzsche saying Gosnell would have been a better abortionist if he’d started with  himself, as the only fitting end for such a small life.    Absent a Christian faith in the dignity of all human life, this is about as much justice as one could expect from a Nietzsche.

Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on April 21, 2013.

3 Responses to “What Would Nietzsche Do? Nietzsche and Abortion; or Kermit Gosnell as the Superman”

  1. Nice.

    Nietzsche would care nothing for the have-nots in every imaginable respect, including the newborn who have not yet proven themselves worthy of life. He might not like the haves either but ruthlessness defined his particular idolatry–as did a general disdain for everyone alive when he was alive.

    He probably isn’t the best source for moral inspiration anyhow unless you’re trying to rehabilitate from a narcotics habit or a practice outlaw exegesis 😉

  2. Hi Jeremy. Thanks for commenting on my post. I agree, Nietzsche’s not an ideal moral guide for anyone, but he is a great hammerer of idols, and useful, I think, in the battle against the predisposition to avoid calling things by their right names, “fetuses” instead of “babies.” He, at the very least, would have been appalled by such talk, if nothing else. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, no?


  3. Nice job twisting Nietzsche’s method to fit your narrative. While personally he probably would not have liked it (especially given his religious upbringing), Nietzsche was all about giving people the freedom to decide how they want to live their life. The end of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” digs into this when he explains his idea of The Eternal Return. In essence, Nietzsche says we should be so affirming of everyone else’s live choices that we should be content living our life over and over without changing anything. Clearly, Nietzsche had no belief whatsoever in restricting other peoples lives and rights.

    Also not sure if you actually read any of his books, but he realllly didn’t like Christianity and it’s incredibly life-restricting practices. Maybe you should look to do a re-read.

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