Mercy Killing Five-Year-Olds, by David Mills

Fasting and Abstinence at Lent: A CNA Explainer
March 6, 2019
Let’s Make Lent Great Again, Together, by Jay W. Richards, Ph.D.
March 6, 2019

By David Mills, Human Life Review, March 5, 2019

She tried the “Where do you draw the line?” argument. A young Facebook friend reported that she’d just got home from a college class that had taken up abortion. Most students treated it as self-evidently good.

If aborting an unborn child is all right, she asked them, what about killing a five-year-old? Classmates argued that yes, if a mother found her five-year-old too difficult to raise, killing him would be “more humane.” More humane, apparently, than letting him live with imperfect parenting. Or giving him to a family who wanted him.

They Saw the Trap

I’ve heard similar stories from younger friends and from those who talk a lot about abortion to other people. Years ago when I and others used that argument, the pro-choice people saw the trap below their feet and swerved away.

They agreed that we can’t kill newborns. That would be wrong. No one at the time would even have thought of suggesting five-year-olds as the example, because no one was that barbaric. Even the most ardent pro-choicer would have thought that the kind of thing only Nazis or Communists did.

But they didn’t think that through. If we can’t kill five-year-olds, we can’t kill newborns. If we can’t kill newborns, we—this is the logical conclusion they desperately wanted to avoid—can’t kill children just before birth, and we can’t kill them even weeks or months earlier when they could survive outside the womb. And if we can’t kill them then, how can we kill them before they can survive on their own? Why is that the line? And if being able to survive on their own is the line, why can’t we kill the disabled and others who can’t survive on their own?

The pro-choicer can’t win this argument. When I used it, they wisely didn’t try. They tried to redirect attention. Some denied the humanity of the unborn, most famously through the crude claim that the child was only a “clump of cells.” Others insisted on the mother’s right to bodily autonomy or self-determination, refusing to notice the child at all. The majority of the Supreme Court tried to distinguish the unborn by the trimester they’d reached.

The pro-choicers all tried to avoid the question of the continuity of the child’s humanity from his conception through his birth. They knew how decisively that undermined their claims.

Now They Admit It

Now, a couple decades later, judging from observation and the stories people more involved in public arguments tell, many pro-choice people don’t bother questioning the continuity. Formed by the generation who tried to deny it but failed, and by decades of legal abortion and the sexual culture it enables, many admit the baby not yet born shares the same humanity as the born baby. And conclude that therefore the born baby may be killed.

Some academics have argued this directly. Peter Singer notoriously, but others also, and they get a respectful hearing. A few years ago, two Australian bioethicists argued this in the Journal of Medical Ethics, one of the world’s major journals of its sort.

The two concluded that “If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the foetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the foetus and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.” They added, to avoid having to work out their argument’s grim implications, “we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible.”

Comfortable with Infanticide

Seeing the continuity doesn’t make these people rethink abortion. It makes them comfortable with infanticide, and in at least one college class, the “mercy killing” of five-year-olds. They don’t move the moral line that they think justifies killing backwards, they move it forwards.

Most of them, I think, would refuse to apply their logic to any five-year-old they knew. They speak inhumanly because they don’t have living human beings in mind. And good. Still, they say what no one I spoke to years ago would have said. They accept the killing of children as a thing their theory of life approves. Why would this be? How could this be?

My guess is that we human beings can’t not see the humanity of other human beings. We know they’re the same kind of creature we are. After a certain point fairly early in pregnancy the unborn look like us. We remember that we were once as they are now. When we think about the matter at all, we follow or at least intuit the chain that connects the five-year-old with the newborn with the almost born with the fetus with the embryo with the zygote.

We have to work to deny it. Denying it requires blinding ourselves to something we see. Look at the struggle of the old apologists for slavery and the later apologists for segregation to make the distinction between races. Their arguments look comically (and tragically) implausible now. Even accounting for inherited prejudice and cultural blindness, at some level they must have known better.

If you see the continuity, and know you see it, yet approve of aborting the unborn, you will feel free to disregard the morally arbitrary lines of viability or birth or even childhood. You will not privilege anyone simply because she happened to be born and live a few years, if you have what you think a “humane” reason to kill her.


I’d like to commend the new #MeStillMe movement began by Nicole Rowley. As Stephen Beale explains in the National Catholic Register: The movement tries to convey “the simple yet profound truth behind the pro-life movement in a way that philosophical and scientific arguments about personhood do not: the newborn infant outside the womb is the same person as the one depicted in the ultrasound, regardless of stage of development.”



David Mills

—David Mills, former editor of First Things, is editor of Hour of Our Death ( and the “Catholic Sense” columnist for The Pittsburgh Catholic.