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Cornell Medical School has rewritten the Hippocratic Oath. Gone is the proscription against abortion. No surprise there: Foreswearing that particular act was discarded from the Oath decades ago (although it is interesting how recent newspaper stories report that few doctors today are willing to perform abortions).

Now, Cornell has also erased the prohibition against assisted suicide (“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.) Killing is not a medical act. Hippocrates understood that. Moreover, putting that power in the hand of a doctor is to give the doctor too much power, given the reliance patients place in their physicians. Hippocrates understood that, too.

The new oath doesn’t even require doctors to foreswear sexual relations with patients, another form of potential abuse and imposition. Illustrating the difference between the rich patient-protecting orientation of the original and the mostly non-specific pablum of the Cornell version, compare Hippocrates with Cornell:

Hippocrates: “Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.” The clear call here is active, requiring doctors never to act in a way that would take advantage of patients, with one specific example, e.g. sexual relations.

Cornell: “That into whatever house I shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick. [Forget for the moment that most doctors don’t make house calls.] That I will maintain this sacred trust, holding myself far aloof from wrong, from corrupting, from the tempting of others to vice.” This is a far more passive and vague approach. What does holding oneself “aloof from wrong” mean, anyway? Indeed, what does “tempting others to vice” mean in the context of today’s anything goes society?

I do appreciate this addition to the Oath, however: “That I will not withdraw from my patients in their time of need.” Never abandoning patients is an important part of being a professional.

Cornell’s oath is a pale comparison to the great original. It contains few specifics. It is wide-open to any interpretation any doctor may wish to place upon it.

What a shame. The Oath is seen by patients as a significant protection of their interests. When I tell audiences that few physicians take the Oath anymore, but instead recite watery facimiles, primarily as a “rite of passage” (as described in the Cornell press office story), they always gasp in unhappy shock.

This latest rewrite continues this sad decline.

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