The War on the Hippocratic Oath

First Things

Wesley J. Smith

The screaming was so loud, you would have thought that the Trump administration had overturned Roe v. Wade. It hadn’t, of course. But it had directed needed attention at the existing legal protection that allows doctors and nurses to refuse to participate in abortions without fear of firing or other job sanctions. This protection is sometimes called “medical conscience rights.”

The occasion for the uproar? The Department of Health and Human Services announced its intention to create a new office of Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce medical conscience. It is worth noting that this proposed action will not change the law. But it will revitalize enforcement efforts after years of the Obama administration’s hostility toward religious liberty generally and medical conscience rights specifically. Indeed, the newly created enforcement office will put medical employers on notice that the current administration considers medical conscience rights to be fundamental. As the HHS press release put it:

The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights.

In a country with a long and venerable history of honoring conscientious objection and protecting the free exercise of religion, one would think this step would be met by applause. But for some, it was akin to a declaration of social war. The Massachusetts Medical Society sniffed in opposition:

As physicians, we have an obligation to ensure patients are treated with dignity while accessing and receiving the best possible care to meet their clinical needs. We will not and cannot, in good conscience, compromise our responsibility to heal the sick based upon a patient’s racial identification, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, disability, immigration status, or economic status.

The New York Times was equally condemning. In an editorial titled, “The White House Puts the Bible Before the Hippocratic Oath,” the editorialists warned hyperbolically:

The decisions may make it more difficult for teenagers wanting to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, for gay men looking to prevent HIV and even for women seeking breast exams or pap smears.

Please. No one who supports a robust protection of medical conscience advocates compromising the physician’s responsibility to “heal the sick.” No one wants to prevent women from obtaining cancer screenings. Nor do supporters of medical conscience seek to authorize doctors and nurses to discriminate against individuals.

Rather, medical conscience prevents doctors and nurses from being forced to act in opposition either to their religious beliefs – e.g., commit a grievous sin – or to their moral consciences by being forced to participate in morally objectionable procedures, such as taking innocent human life in abortion, assisted suicide, or lethal injection euthanasia. It could also protect medical professionals from being required to administer hormones to inhibit puberty in adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria – a controversial recent innovation that the American College of Pediatricians has called “mass experimentation.” That opinion is becoming heterodox in the field, but surely no doctor should be forced in an elective procedure to act in a way that he believes actively harms the patient. The same goes for physicians who object to participating in sex-change surgeries based on the belief that sex is biologically determined or that it is wrong to remove healthy organs. Conscious protections should also apply to a doctor or nurse who objects to participating in infant circumcision based on a moral objection. And surely no doctor should be forced to participate in an execution, not even the administrative act of declaring the condemned prisoner dead after the execution.

People of good will can hold radically divergent moral beliefs, including about legal medical services and procedures. The stakes in this controversy are very high. As I have written here before, there is a concerted effort underway to drive pro-life and Hippocratic Oath-believing doctors, nurses, and other professionals out of medicine – a lamentable potentiality. We need increased comity and tolerance for those medical professionals who object to reigning moral paradigms and hold to sanctity-of-life ethics. The new HHS office represents a positive step toward achieving that end.

Post Script: The best and most efficient way to protect medical conscience would be for the states and the federal government to allow medical conscience rights to be enforced via private causes of action in civil court, which is not currently allowed generally. I will discuss that idea in a future column.

 

Emerging assault on freedom of conscience

Canadian Family Physician

Stephen J. Genuis

Discussion on physician autonomy at the 2014 and 2015 Canadian Medical Association (CMA) annual meetings highlighted an emerging issue of enormous importance: the contentious matter of freedom of conscience (FOC) within clinical practice. In 2014, a motion was passed by delegates to CMA’s General Council,and affirmed by the Board of Directors, supporting the right of all physicians, within the bounds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience with regard to providing medical aid in dying. The overwhelming sentiment among those in attendance was that physicians should retain the right to choose when it comes to matters of conscience related to end-of-life intervention. Support for doctors refusing to engage in care that clashes with their beliefs was reaffirmed in 2015. However, a registrar from a provincial college of physicians and surgeons is reported to have a differing perspective, stating “Patient rights trump our rights. Patient needs trump our needs.1

So, do the personal wishes of doctors hold much sway in Canadian society, where physicians are increasingly perceived as publicly funded service providers? Should the colleges of physicians and surgeons have the power to remove competent physicians who refuse to violate their own conscience?

And what about FOC in a range of other thorny medical situations unrelated to physician-assisted dying?

Genuis SJ. Emerging assault on freedom of conscience.  Canadian Family Physician April 2016 vol. 62 no. 4 293-296  [Full text]

 

The Hippocratic “oath” (Some further reasonable hypotheses)

Research 2014; 1:733

Sergio Musitelli*, Ilaria Bossi*

Abstract

Although 65 treatises – either preserved or lost, but quoted by ancient authors like Bacchius (3rd century B.C.), Erotian (1st century A.D.) and Galen (c. 129-199 A.D.) – are ascribed to Hippocrates (c. 469-c. 399 B.C.) and consist of nearly 83 books, nonetheless there is no doubt that none of them was written by Hippocrates himself. This being the fact, we cannot help agreeing with Ulrich von Wilamowitz Möllendorf (1848-1931), who maintained that Hippocrates is a name without writings!

Indeed the most of the treatises of the “Corpus hippocraticum” are not the collection of Hippocrates’ works, but were likely the “library” of the Medical School of Kos. The fact that it contains some treatises that represent the theories of the Medical school of Cnidos (most probably founded by a certain Euryphon, almost contemporary with Hippocrates), with which it seems that Hippocrates entered into a relentless debate, is an absolute evidence.

Moreover, we must confess that, although Celsus (1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.) (De medicina, I, Prooemium) writes that “Hippocrates of Kos…separated this branch of learning (i.e. Medicine) from the study of philosophy”, we have nothing to learn from the hippocratic treatises under the scientific point of view.

However, whatever its origin, the “Oath” is a real landmark in the ethics of medicine and we can say – with Thuchydides (460/455-400 B.C.) (Histories, I, 22, 4) – that it is “an achievement for eternity”.

Suffice it to remember that every graduand in Medicine is generally still bound to take an oath that is a more or less modified and more or less updated text of the “Hippocratic oath” and that even the modern concept of bioethics has its very roots in the Hippocratic medical ethics.

“The art is long; life is short; opportunity fleeting; experiment treacherous; judgment difficult: The physician must be ready, not only to do his duty himself, but also to secure the co-operation of the patient, of the attendants and of externals, ” says the first “Aphorism” and the latest author of “Precepts” (chapter VI) writes: “where there is love of man, there is also love of the art”, and the “art” par excellence is medicine! These precepts go surely back to Hippocrates’s moral teaching.

Nonetheless, the preserved text of the marvellous “Oath” raises many problems. Namely:

1) which is the date of it”?

2) Is it mutilated or interpolated?

3) Who took the oath, i.e. all the practitioners or only those belonging to a guild?

4) What binding force had it beyond its moral sanction”?

5) Last but not least: was it a reality or merely a “counsel of perfection”?

In this article we have gathered and discussed all the available and most important sources, but do not presume to have solved all these problems and confine ourselves to proposing some reasonable hypotheses and letting the readers evaluate the positive and negative points of our proposals. [Full Text]

Abortion campaigners assault on conscience in Italy based on ideology, not facts

 “When the ideological fury collides with reality, sometimes the impact is very violent.”

LifeSite News

Hilary White

ROME, March 13, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The pro-life movement in Italy has come out swinging against an order by the Council of Europe to abolish the country’s legal protection for conscientious objectors against abortion. Gianfranco Amato, the head of the campaign group Giuristi per la Vita (Jurists for Life), said at a press conference yesterday that the clause in the abortion law 194, “remains the only form of defence against an unjust law.”

Amato said, “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society.”

The committee’s decision came in response to a complaint, launched in November 2012 by International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPFEN) and an Italian labour union, claiming that Italian doctors were “abusing” the conscience protection clause in Law 194. IPPF made the complaint when the government announced in its annual statistics that between 70 and 90 percent of gynecologists in the country refuse to participate in abortion.

Some in the secular media are defending the decision of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Social Rights to uphold a complaint against the law, saying that it has created a “totalitarianism” of pro-life doctors who commit “psychological violence” against women who want abortions. The criticism comes as Italian media are publicizing the case of a woman who is claiming that two years ago she miscarried in a hospital bathroom after doctors refused to do an abortion. Valentina Pertini has launched a court case to review the law this week, aiming to add political pressure immediately following the Council of Europe committee’s non-binding decision.[Full Text]