Assisted suicide does not violate Hippocratic Oath

An elderly patient.
An elderly patient.PHOTO: ST FILE

The debate over the Hippocratic Oath when it comes to euthanasia and assisted suicide neglects the fact that at the time of Hippocrates, there was no prohibition against physician-assisted suicide in mainstream Greek medicine.

Neither the Hippocratic Oath nor classical tradition provides a compelling ethical or professional prohibition of physician-assisted suicide.

A 2006 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy article stated that because the Hippocratic Oath instructs physicians not to provide a deadly drug, some have concluded that physicians, by their training and moral commitment, must necessarily reject assistance in hastening death.

This is not the case. The provision in the oath that prohibits providing a deadly drug did not even reflect accepted medical practice in ancient Greece where, upon request, a physician could provide a lethal drug for a suffering patient.

In some sense, physicians who provide assistance in hastening death are adhering to a longstanding understanding of the scope of medical practice: To care for and meet the needs and desires of a patient in hastening death are the same as those often carried out by physicians who oversee a withdrawal of treatment.

Over time, the Hippocratic Oath has been modified many times because some of its tenets became less acceptable.

For example, reference to women not studying medicine and doctors not breaking the skin have been deleted.

The oath tells doctors to care for their patients, but if the doctors are letting their patients suffer, not knowing how long they will be suffering, then, they are also not caring for them.

The oath expects doctors to improve patients' quality of life, so, a doctor also has the responsibility, if asked by a patient in constant pain who wants to be at peace, to end his life, as living in pain is living a bad quality of life.

Francis Cheng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2015, with the headline 'Assisted suicide does not violate Hippocratic Oath'. Print Edition | Subscribe