July 7, 2022

Back to the source: the Hippocratic Oath re-examined

For the fundaments, it’s still relevant

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Over the centuries the Hippocratic Oath has expressed the ideals of the medical profession, although nowadays other versions have supplanted it for graduating medical students– if they take any oath at all. If taken literally the Oath is an anachronism. Who today “swears by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses”?

But T. A. Cavanaugh, a philosopher at the University of San Francisco, argues in his recent book Hippocrates' Oath and Asclepius' Snake: The Birth of the Medical Profession that the Oath is still relevant in establishing the fundamental ethics of the medical profession—to help and not to harm the sick.

Steeped in Hellenic culture and philosophy, Cavanaugh argues that deliberate iatrogenic harm, especially the harm of a doctor choosing to kill (physician assisted suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and involvement in capital punishment), amounts to an abandonment of medicine as an exclusively therapeutic profession.

Medicine as a profession, Cavanaugh contends, necessarily involves declaring the good one seeks and the bad one seeks to avoid on behalf of the sick. The idea of taking an oath implies that doctors set boundaries around what they are permitted to do. Medicine must reject the view that it is purely a technique lacking its own unique internal ethic.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.

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