If the physician presumes to take into consideration in his work whether a life has value or not, the consequences are boundless and the physician becomes the most dangerous man in the state.”
The above statement was not made in 1983 by the President of Right to Life or by a Roman Catholic bishop. It was made by a German physician named Dr. Christoph Hufeland, who lived from 1762 to 1863. If I had read it twenty-five years ago I would have considered it exaggerated or at least irrelevant to the medical and social situation in our time. But I would have been wrong!
Let me say first that I have a tremendous respect for the “science” of medicine and also for the may wonderful doctors whom I number among my friends and into whose capable, skilful and moral hands I would have no hesitation in placing at least the physical portion of my person. But, having paid this sincere tribute to individuals, I have to confess that I entertain grave fears regarding the well-being of some areas of the medical profession. To take one example among many, a report in the Toronto Star of April 4th, 1983, must give cause for some concern.
A survey of 300 Toronto doctors reveals that two-thirds of them (200) have neither taken the oath forbidding mercy killing, nor read the Canadian Medical Association’s Code of Ethics.
Among those who did take the Hippocratic Oath, two-thirds don’t remember what it says, and three-fifth’s (180) of those questioned say that nothing would be lost if the Oath was no longer taken.
I don’t know how you feel, but that admission makes me very uneasy, especially in view of recent medical experiments and developments in Canada and the United States.
If doctors are so hazy about the Hippocratic Oath and what it stands for, I do not think it would be out of place to say something about Hippocrates and his famous Oath.
Hippocrates was a Greek Physician who lived during the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ. He was referred to in ancient times as “Hippocrates the Great” and Aristotle in his ‘Politics’ speaks of him as “The Great Physician”. Although he died about 370 B.C., he was called, at least until recently, the “Father of Modern Medicine”. The reason this man who lived some 25 centuries ago held such an exalted position in the minds and hearts of the members of the medical profession irrespective of their race, culture or religion, was that the Oath which bears his name was the foundation of medical morals and ethics for more than two thousand years. And though Hippocrates himself may not have actually formulated it, until very recent times, it was an honoured custom for every doctor to take this Oath – and keep it!
What was the wording of the Oath? It is rather long and involved, so I shall quote only the salient points. It says,
“I swear by Apollo and all the gods and goddesses that, according to my ability and judgement, I shall keep this Oath and stipulation… I will follow that treatment which, according to my ability and judgement I consider best for the benefit of my patients and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked or suggest any such counsel. Furthermore I will not give to any woman any instrument (pessary) to produce abortion. With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practice my art.”
We have evidence that, at least until 1948, this Oath remained the abiding principle upon which the art of medicine was founded. Its values were enshrined in the Declaration of Geneva by the World Medical Association in September 1948. It says in part,”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. And I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honour.” It is very significant that this Oath, made by a pagan doctor to a pagan god, should have been accepted as the basic ethic of medicine as practiced by Christian doctors in a society which, at least in theory, had accepted the principles of the Gospel. Not only was it accepted as the standard of Christian medicine, but as the standard of good medicine all over the civilized world.
So, even by pagan standards, the raison d’etre of the doctor’s vocation was, from the very beginning, to care and cure, but never to kill. It is a sad commentary on the present state of medical morals that it can be statistically proven that the most dangerous place to be today is in the womb of a mother!