The Hippocratic Oath, attributed to a 5th century B.C. pagan physician (Hippocrates), marked a dramatic shift in society’s understanding of the physician’s role. According to the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, before Hippocrates, the doctor and the sorcerer were one in the same person. He or she who had the power to cure also had it to kill – and often did – a fact which inspired feelings of fear, awe, and suspicion toward physicians.
The Oath represented the first time in which there was a complete separation between killing and curing. “One profession…was to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect – the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a defective child,” writes Mead.
Philosophically, the Oath is premised on the conviction that every human life demands respect and reverence by its very nature. Life, the Oath implies in its prohibitions against intentional killing through euthanasia, assisted suicide, and abortion, is a gift and deserves physicians’ care and protection because of its intrinsic worth.
According to the Hippocratic Oath, all other principles of medicine flow from this understanding of life’s worth, and a physician should never give in to the temptation to take life, even when asked to do so.
The Oath of Hippocrates has reached a crossroads indeed when, as Dr. Jack Willke observes, “there are now licensed physicians who deliver a baby in one room and kill an intrauterine baby of the same age in another room.” Or when physicians in the state of Oregon, which legalized physician assisted suicide, go to great lengths to care for and preserve the life of an elderly patient one day and help another one kill herself on the next.
The Hippocratic Oath enshrines timeless principles about the inherent value of every human life that should never be violated. The horrors of this century should be enough to remind us, in the words of one physician, that when “we emancipate ourselves from the Oath of Hippocrates, we liberate ourselves to commit atrocities.”
Brian P. Johnston, Death as a Salesman, (Sacramento: New Regency Publishing, 1997), pp. 101-106.
JohnWillke, M.D., Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, (Cincinnati: Hayes Publishing, 1998), pp. 77-83.
I swear by Apollo, the Physician, and Aesculapius and All-Heal and all the gods and godesses that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and Stipulation: To reckon him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to share my substance with him and relieve his necessities if required; to regard his offspring as on the same footing with my own brothers, and to teach them this art if they should wish to learn it without fee or stipulation, and that by precept, lecture and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons and to those of my teachers, and to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath, according to the law of medicine, but to none others.
I will follow that method of treatment which, according to my ability and judgement, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; furthermore, I will not give to a woman an instrument to produce abortion. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my art. I will not cut a person who is sufferring with a stone, but will leave this to be done by practitioners of this work.
Into whatever houses I enter I will go into them for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption, and further from the seduction of females or males, bond or free.
Whatever, in connection with my professional practice, or not in connection with it, I may see or hear in the lives of men which ought not to be spoken abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret.
While I continue to keep this oath unviolated may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men at all times, but should I trespass and violate this oath, may the reverse be my lot.
The Declaration of Geneva
After World War II and the Nazi “medical experiments” in concentration camps, the World Medical Association issued the “Declaration of the Geneva” to update the Hippocratic Oath and reaffirm its most important ideals. The Declaration of Geneva is rarely referenced today.
I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due; I will practice my profession with conscience and dignity; the health of my patient will be my first consideration; I will respect the secrets which are confided in me; I will maintain by all means in my power the honor and noble traditions of the medical profession; my colleagues will be my brothers; I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics, or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient; I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity. I make these promises solemnly, freely, and upon my honor.
The above is the original, 1948 version. This was amended in 1983 to specify that secrets will be maintained “even after the patient has died”, and to change the reference to “conception” to “beginning of life”.
Modern Day Hippocratic Oath
I swear in the presence of the Almighty and before my family, my teachers and my peers that according to my ability and judgment I will keep this Oath and Stipulation:
To reckon all who have taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents and in the same spirit and dedication to impart a knowledge of the art of medicine to others. I will continue with diligence to keep abreast of advances in medicine. I will treat without exception any who seek my ministrations, so long as the treatment of others is not compromised thereby, and I will seek the counsel of particularly skilled physicians where indicated for the benefit of my patient.
I will follow that method of treatment which according to my ability and judgment I consider for the benefit of mq patient and abstain from whatever is harmful or mischievous. I will neither prescribe nor administer a lethal dose of medicine to any patient even if asked nor counsel any such thing nor perform act or omission with direct intent deliberately to end a human life. I will maintain the utmost respect for every human life from fertilization to natural death and reject abortion that deliberately takes a unique human life. With purity, holiness, and beneficence I will pass my life and practice my art. Except for the prudent correction of an imminent danger, I will neither treat any patient nor carry out any research on any human being without the valid informed consent of the subject or the appropriate legal protector thereof, understanding that research must have as its purpose the furtherance of the health of that individual. Into whatever patient setting I enter, I will go for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief or corruption and further from the seduction of any patient. Whatever in connection with my professional practice or not in connection with it I may see or hear in the lives of my patients which ought not be spoken abroad I will not divulge, reckoning that all such should be kept secret. While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art and science of medicine with the blessing of the AImighty and respected by my peers and society, but should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.
My Pledge to My Patients
The following pledge was written by “Physicians for Compassionate Care”. It is clearly inspired by the Hippocratic Oath.
I will treat the sick according to my best ability and judgement, always striving to do no harm. Whenever I care for a terminally-ill patient, I will give comfort care until natural death. I will also support my patients wishes not to prolong the dying process with futile care. I will never give a deadly drug to anyone even if asked, nor will I suggest suicide. Whatever I see or hear in the course of medical practice, I will keep private and confidential. I will always avoid sexual involvement with my patients. With integrity, I will always affirm and guard these ethical principles recognizing that every human life is inherently valuable.