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Thank God Hippocrates Was Pagan

August 30th, 2012

By Jennifer Lahl, CBC President

To suggest that one cannot or should not defend the sanctity of human life in the public square by using publicly accessible secular language is to remove a necessary tool for making the case for valuing and protecting all human life. While religious arguments are good and necessary even in the public square, secular arguments from reason are equally as important for effectively engaging in the marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic society. If we deny secular reasoning, then we deny thousands of years of the rich Hippocratic tradition in medicine. For in fact Hippocrates and his colleagues were pagan. Dust off the oath and read it.

The Hippocratic Oath divides into two parts—the oath and the covenant. In the oath, the physician swears (to a list of pagan gods) his allegiance to his teacher, who is equal to his parents, and pledges to share his knowledge with others who have also signed the covenant. The covenant part of the oath establishes the professional obligation to practice medicine to a standard far greater than just “doing what the patient asks.” In summary, the obligations are:

1. To give optimal care to the sick and to never injure or wrong them—a concept often summarized by the term “do no harm” (“I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them”);

2. To never assist in suicide or practice euthanasia, nor suggest it (“I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan”);

3. To never perform an abortion (“and similarly [to giving a lethal drug], I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion”);

4. When one does not have sufficient expertise (there was a clear demarcation between physicians and surgeons in ancient medicine), to refer to a practitioner who does (“I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft”);

5. To treat all patients as equals (“avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves”);

6. To never have sex with patients (“avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves”);

7. To maintain patient confidentiality (“Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private”) (1).

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