Prolife Doctors Revise Hippocratic Oath

Author: Mary Meehan


BACKGROUND: The times, some distinguished doctors feel, require a rewrite of the Hippocratic Oath.

"ANYBODY and everybody has been writing oaths as substitutes for the Hippocratic Oath," said Dr. Joseph Stanton of the Value of Life Committee, Brighton, Mass.

Most of them, he said, "bear no resemblance to the original oath." [One even says that ending life is sometimes "an act of supreme love."] But Stanton and his associates in prolife causes have come up with a restatement of the Hippocratic Oath that has anti- euthanasia and anti-abortion provisions, as well as clauses covering "informed consent" and medical research (see text at end of article).

Endorsers of the new oath include Dr. Anne Bannon of National Doctors for Life; Rabbi J. David Bleich, Cardozo Law School; Dr. C. Everett Koop, former surgeon general; Dr. Edmund Pellgrino, Georgetown University; Msgr. William Smith, St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, N.Y.; and Dr. John Willke of Life Issues Institute.

The ancient oath, named for the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), has provisions against both euthanasia and abortion, as well as the famous phrases: "With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my art.... Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick. ... "

Traditionally, graduating medical students have taken the oath, swearing "by Apollo . . . and all the gods and goddesses," although some Christians have sworn by Christ instead. Those who take the new oath will simply swear: "in the presence of the Almighty."

Some critics have objected to the ancient oath's assumption that all doctors are men. The restated oath, drafted at a time when nearly half of all medical students are women, omits the male references. Also deleted is the old oath's promise not to "cut persons laboring under the stone."

Not everyone Stanton consulted is happy about the restatement. Dr. Herbert Ratner, a prolife veteran and editor of the Child and Family journal, told the Register that he opposed the restatement "because the original was so great and powerful." He wants to see medical students take the ancient oath, but he said that medical schools "have been dropping what they don't like" particularly the sections against abortion and euthanasia.

Ratner described the ancient version as "an inspired oath," marking a recognition by Greek pagans that "they ought to separate healing from killing." He added, "Listen: You don't rewrite the Gettysburg Address. You don't rewrite the Sermon on the Mount" or the Ten Commandments. The Hippocratic oath, he said, "belongs in that category."

Boston psychiatrist Dr. Joanne Angelo, however, liked the restated oath so much that she sent her own copy of it to Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston recently carried it to Rome, she told the Register, and promised that "he would see that the Holy Father received it."

Like others who worked on it, Angelo hopes that graduating medical students will start taking the revised oath. She suggested that the restatement is "a little more appealing to young people today."

Stanton, 74, has thought about the Hippocratic Oath as a prolife activist and a doctor- but also as a patient. He had a severe case Of polio as a teen-ager and he's now a wheelchair user.

In a recent interview, he was philosophical about the revised oath. "If God means for it to fly, it's gonna fly," he said. "I have great, great confidence in that."

-Mary Meehan

'With purity, holiness and

THE VALUE OF LIFE; Committee, Brighton Mass., has copyrighted the restated oath "to insure textual integrity." It is reprinted here with permission:

"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 all 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 my 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 Almighty and respected by my peers and society, but should I trespass and violate this oath, may the reverse be my lot."

Cooperators, Endorsers and Signatories: Dr. E. Joanne Angelo; Dr. Henry Armitage; Dr. Anne Bannon; Rabbi J. David Bleich; Professor Harold O.J. Brown; Dr. Matthew Bulfin; Dr. Paul Byrne; Dr. William Colliton; Professor John Jefferson Davis; Professor Patrick Derr; Dr. Eugene Diamond; Dr. Mark Druffner; Professor Arthur Dyck; Dr. Richard Fenigsen; Dr. Albert Gunn; Dr. Curt Harris; Dr. Gloria Heffernan; Dr. Helen Jackson; Professor C. Ward Kischer; Dr. C. Everett Koop; Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth; Professor William May (Washington, D.C.); Dr. Ralph Miech, Dr. Gertrude Murphy; Professor J. Robert Nelson; Dr. Samuel Nigro; Dr. Robert Nixon; Dr. Edmund Pellegrino; Dr. Francis Rockett; Msgr. William Smith; Dr. Joseph Stanton; Dr. Leonie S. Watson; Dr. Richard A. Watson; Dr. John C. Willke; Professor George Williams.

-Mary Meehan

Taken from the "National Catholic Register," July 16, 1995. For subscriptions contact the "National Catholic Register", P.O. Box 260380, Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421-3230.