Cherry-Picking the Hippocratic Oath

Cherry-picking refers to people’s practice of selecting information to justify their points of view, even as they ignore perspectives and data from the same or similar legitimate sources that contradict their positions.

For example, the Hippocratic Oath is sometimes quoted to justify a stance against abortion rights by the same people who are certain that faith in female divinity as expressed in this document is heretical. Indeed, this oath, from which anti-abortion advocates draw support, was created by people who worshiped goddesses. It states, “I swear by Apollo the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and judgment, the following oath and agreement.”

Lakshmi Parvati SaraswatiIt’s still possible to find an occasional version of the oath including the word “goddesses” hanging on a doctor’s waiting room wall. Modern versions are likely to omit all reference to divine power. Faith in female divinity is still thriving among civilization’s 1 billion-plus member Hindu community, but references to female divinity were violently suppressed in the monotheistic Western world a long time ago.

Consider two speculative questions: What would Western civilization be like if masculine definitions of divinity had been suppressed, if female divinity was the only acceptable version? And why do people insist on assigning one of two biological genders to divinity?

The oath states, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.” The anti-abortion constituency insists these words represent an uncompromising stand against euthanasia and any type of abortion. Pro-choice forces point out that a pessary was one of many methods for ending pregnancy at that time.

Isn’t it likely that Greek physicians in the 5th century B.C. made medical decisions consistent with their training, values and the circumstances they faced with their patients? The oath states, “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to others.” Some physicians may have taken this to condone abortions necessary to save a mother’s life, while others believed a pregnancy should never be interrupted, regardless of the circumstances.

The Hippocratic Oath, written in Ionic Greek approximately 2,500 years ago, demonstrates how issues we’re facing today resemble those faced by our recent ancestors. Nobody knows for sure who wrote it. A modernized version is used by a majority of U.S. medical schools. These oaths are part of civilization’s ongoing quest to establish and meet higher standards.

How contemporary are patients’ privacy rights? The oath states: “All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.”

Recognizing that physicians often have intimate, private access to their patients’ bodies and emotions, the oath states, “In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.”

In other words, physicians must avoid sexual contact with patients. How about religious officials?

The oath states, “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” Let specialists do specialized jobs. The ubiquitous “Best Doctors by Specialization” lists demonstrate professional commitment to this principle.

In a modernized version of the oath, Dr. Louis Lasagna wrote, “I will not be ashamed to say ‘I know not,’” and “Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”

For the complete version of Dr. Lasagna’s oath visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/hippocratic-oath-today.html. A classical version of the Hippocratic Oath is also available at this site.


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