Human Exceptionalism

Revisionism Alert! Trying to Explain Away Changes in the Hippocratic Oath

This is revisionism on steroids. The Hippocratic Oath is no longer taken by most doctors because it has some politically incorrect clauses, such as barring physicians from mercy killing patients, abortion, and sex with patients. I have written about those matters here at SHS before. But now an ethicist writing for the BBC tries to tell us that the Oath really didn’t ban assisted suicide or abortion. From the article:

The next part seemingly concerns euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, saying: “And I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked, nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel.”

Two leading scholars of the Oath, Littre and Miles, have however suggested that this passage alludes to the then common practice of using doctors as skilled political assassins. Steven Miles notes: “Fear of the physician-poisoner may be traced very close to the time of the Oath.” The word “euthanasia” (meaning “easeful death”) was only coined a century after the writing of the Oath.

The text continues: “And likewise I will not give a woman a destructive pessary.” This passage is often interpreted as a rejection of abortion.

However, abortion was legal at the time and the text only mentions pessaries (a soaked piece of wool inserted in the vagina to induce abortion), not the oral methods of abortion also used in ancient Greece. As pessaries could cause lethal infections, the author of the Oath may have had a clinical objection to the method, rather than a moral objection to abortion itself.

Oh, please. First, note that when the Oath switches topics from mercy killing to abortion, the use of the segue word, “likewise.” How can the anti mercy killing issue refer to assassination when, by using the word likewise, the author is clearly saying “in the same manner, I will not use a pessary to cause abortion.” He wouldn’t be assassinating the woman!

Moreover, euthanasia means “good death,” not “eased death,” and up until the late 19th Century it meant dying at home, pain free, in a state of grace, surrounded by family. It was one of the first words co-opted by the then nascent mercy killing movement to change the language to make killing easier to accept. (See Ian Dowbiggin’s A Concise History of Euthanasia.)

Trying to pretend that today’s medical ethical milieu is still “Hippocratic” is nonsense–particularly when there is a movement afoot to force doctors to perform or be complicit in abortions and assisted suicides–and when physicians are no longer scorned for affairs with their patients.