The Hippocratic Physician
I swear by Apollo the physician, Aesculapius, Health, All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this 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 look upon his offspring in the same footing as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they shall 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 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 system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art. I will not cut persons laboring under the stone, but will leave this to be done by men who are 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, of freemen and slaves. Whatever, in connection with my professional service, or not in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of 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, in all times. But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.
This, the Hippocratic Oath, dates back to ancient Greece, approximately 500 B.C. Despite its great age, its promise is relevant today.
Although their options were limited by modern standards, physicians in ancient Greece had access to treatments which healed and treatments which killed. A patient could never be 100 percent sure that an enemy had not paid a larger fee — his medicine could be poison.
After Hippocrates introduced this oath, medicine changed rapidly. The demand for Hippocratic physicians, who swore to respect the lives of patients above all other considerations, far outpaced the demand for others. Non-Hippocratic physicians nearly disappeared within two generations.
Christianity’s respect for life mirrored that of the Hippocratic physicians — each human life was in the image and likeness of God. Christian physicians were Hippocratic both by profession and by doctrine.
For years, U.S. medicine followed the prevailing Judeo-Christian beliefs — Hippocratic. Doctors had few effective treatments for diseases, but they saved lives when they could; they never intentionally killed.
All physicians agreed that life begins at conception, even those doctors founding Planned Parenthood. This consensus changed in the 1960s when doctors with conflicts of interest redefined when life begins.
Enter Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger, the founder of PP, allied with the eugenics movement in the 1920s — almost a decade before Adolf Hitler did. Sanger wrote widely on the inferiority of certain “races,” and recommended preventing these “inferior” people from reproducing as a key part of her advocacy for contraception.
Forty years later, research on the intra-uterine device (IUD) demonstrated high effectiveness in preventing pregnancy continuation by killing the fertilized egg or by preventing implantation of the growing embryo.
PP looked for ways to promote acceptance of the IUD — killing embryos was not socially acceptable. Mary Calderone, the medical director of PP, warned that neither Christians (in 1962) nor Muslims (1964) would accept a treatment causing early miscarriages.
In 1964, a Planned Parenthood researcher, Dr. Christopher Tietze, proposed redefining when life begins: “If a medical consensus develops and is maintained that pregnancy, and therefore life, begins at implantation, eventually our brethren from the faculties will list (give in).”
The next year, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a new definition of conception without any scientific basis for the change: Conception is the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
Two obvious points: Gynecologists profit from prescribing contraceptives and every medical text still defines conception as the union of egg and sperm.
Yet the confusion about when life begins was the starting point for Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973).
Christians did accept contraception, and most are unaware that IUDs and to a lesser extent birth control pills, cause early miscarriages in addition to preventing union of sperm and egg.
Two states in the Northwest have accepted assisted suicide, largely by promoting the false belief that pain cannot be controlled in many terminal illnesses.
Our society has moved from respecting each life as being loved by God, and in the image of God, to seeing some lives as not worth living.
In the Netherlands, which has allowed assisted suicide for a generation, rumors of old or disabled people being pressured by family to choose suicide are common. We may be headed there.
Hippocratic physicians observe this societal change with alarm. The Obama administration’s interpretation of the health care reform law that contraception and abortion are ordinary medical services that must be offered, threatens us. Hippocratic medical practice may become illegal.
Unless we insist on freedom of religion, Americans in 20 years may have the same choice as the Greeks in Hippocrates’ time — going to a doctor who may get paid to quietly assist your suicide or finding the rare Hippocratic physician.
Our actions now affect that future.
Dr. Jim Holt of Johnson City is a physician and faculty member at the Johnson City Family Medicine Residency.