Hippocrates and Hypocrisy

Do people have the “right to die”?
( [email protected] ) Oct 26, 2003 10:47 PM EST

If people want to die, isn’t it more merciful to let them commit suicide than to allow them to suffer?

Those who support doctor-assisted suicide—allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients—claim that the taboo against it is nothing but a vestige of religious prejudice.

Ironically, it was a pagan culture, not a Christian one, that first prohibited doctors from killing their patients. In traditional and tribal cultures, as Nigel Cameron explains in his book The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates, suicide was a common practice. The person most likely to provide the deadly drugs was the medicine man, the witch doctor, the sorcerer. The power to cure also mean the power to kill.

But a major turning point occurred roughly four hundred years before Christ when the philosophers of ancient Greece enunciated the Hippocratic oath. For the first time doctors pledged never to use their medicinal arts for killing. They promised: “I will give no deadly drug, [even] if asked for it.” The Hippocratic oath turned medicine into the first “profession,” as doctors “professed” a set of moral standards.

When Christianity came on the scene, the church fathers embraced the Hippocratic oath and adapted it to biblical ethics. For two thousand years the medical profession was a complex fabric of technical skills bound together by moral commitments.

But today that fabric is unraveling. Medicine is losing its moral dimension and is being reduced to only a set of technical skills applied in the service of social engineering.

Just consider the Netherlands, which entered the brave new world of euthanasia (assisted suicide) several years ago. Within a short time, Dutch doctors moved beyond patient requests and began making decisions on their own about who should live or die. Today nearly half of Dutch doctors say they’ve given lethal injections without the patient’s knowledge or consent.

Clearly the Hippocratic oath, with its taboo against killing, was no mere “religious prejudice.” It was based on a profound understanding of the temptation that doctors face with their power over life and death.

But today that taboo is crumbling. Oregon voters have decided to let doctors kill as well as cure, and similar bills are under consideration in several other states. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to rule that patients have a constitutional right to assisted suicide, but its decision contained ominous language suggesting that the court might change its mind once it could see how assisted suicide worked out in practice.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that patients who request suicide are typically motivated not by illness but by loneliness and depression. What they really need is not a deadly drug but care and companionship.

The acceptance of doctor-assisted suicide signals not only the end of medicine as a morally based profession but also a profound failure of our own character—a failure to commit ourselves to loving and caring for the sick, the handicapped, and the dying.

So even the basic question of euthanasia presents a challenge to all of us, parents and children alike: Will we allow doctors to do away with the weakest members of the human community? Or will we muster the moral will to stand by those weaker members with love and care?

As our question implies, euthanasia supporters claim that when people are suffering, helping them kill themselves is the only “compassionate” thing to do—just as the abortion lobby says that when babies are unwanted, abortion is the “compassionate” choice for them as well.

These definitions of compassion are cheap substitutes for the real thing. It’s easy to hook up a terminally ill person to an IV full of lethal drugs. Real compassion is caring for him or her for months or even years—and as the late Mother Teresa put it so well, “letting him see Jesus in the midst of his suffering.”

From Answers to Your Kids’ Questions