"A Modest Proposal" begins with an account of the impoverished state of many in Ireland. The writer expresses sympathy and the need for a solution. This proposal hopefully will decrease the number of abortions performed by poor mothers. The writer calculates the number of infants born in Ireland and asks what should be done with them. He points out that they are unfit for any employment, being even too young to steal. Neither will merchants buy or sell children. Therefore, it seems like a good idea that the people of Ireland simply eat the infants when they reach the age of one year.
The writer treats the weight of an infant, what kind of dish it will make, and how many people it will serve. He surmises the times of year when the infants will be most plentiful, based on the purported sexual patterns of the Irish. There might also be uses for the discarded skin of the infants, such as for ladies' gloves. A friend of the narrator's, "a very worthy person," has already heard the proposal and suggested that children of fourteen, too, be a potential food. The writer has dismissed this idea, though, because the flesh of fourteen-year-old boys is too lean, and fourteen-year-old girls might soon become breeders of infants themselves. He defends his friend, nevertheless, by saying that the friend learned of this practice in Asia among certain savage peoples. This digression continues with the observation that he is unconcerned about those adults who are ill, disabled, or starving, because there is nothing he can do for them.
He returns to the chief proposal and lists six reasons why it should be adopted. First, it will decrease the number of dangerous Catholics. Second, it will give the poor some property. Third, it will increase the nation's overall wealth, since people will not have to pay for the upkeep of the children. Fourth, the mothers will be free of the burden of bringing up children.