WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH?
By Anne O’Meara, Executive Director – May 2020
The Hippocratic Oath was once viewed as the gold standard in medicine. Dating back to approximately 400 BC, the oath is perhaps the oldest binding document still existing and available in both its original form and modernized versions. Unfortunately, the classic oath has largely gone out of fashion in the last several decades.
Historically, the Hippocratic Oath required new physicians to swear they would uphold a set of ethical standards. Over the years, the oath has been rewritten repeatedly to suit the values and morals of different times and cultures. Before addressing how the oath has evolved, I will highlight a particular nuance of the classic Hippocratic Oath which may surprise you. While the original Hippocratic Oath did NOT explicitly say, “First, do no harm” (as is commonly attributed to it), it did contain this life-affirming verbiage:
- I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan, and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.
- I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
As you can see, the original oath focused on the preservation of human life. The newest versions of the oath, however, rarely contain this life-affirming language. Peter Paul Ruben, author of The Oath: Meaningless Relic or Invaluable Moral Guide?, states, “Even as the modern oath’s use has burgeoned, its content has tacked away from the classical oath’s basic tenets. According to a 1993 survey of 150 U.S. and Canadian medical schools, for example, only 14 percent of modern oaths prohibit euthanasia, 11 percent hold covenant with a deity, 8 percent foreswear abortion, and a mere 3 percent forbid sexual contact with patients—all maxims held sacred in the classical version.”
These findings are probably not all that surprising, given we are living in a world where on-demand abortion, euthanasia, and even infanticide are becoming common and more accepted. Also, when it comes to physician-assisted suicide, the word “physician” was strategically invoked by the euthanasia movement to make assisted suicide appear legitimate. But this appearance is deceiving.
Opponents of the classic Hippocratic Oath argue that a “modern” oath keeps original values in place while meeting the needs of our “advanced” society. However, I would argue the exact opposite is true. We can change and distort the language of the classic oath, but we cannot change morality. It will always be intrinsically evil to kill an innocent person.