New Doctors' Oath Riles Pro-Lifers

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - When a medical ethics committee recently offered up a new doctors oath that failed to include an imperative for protecting human life, a Christian medical group cried foul.

"If patient welfare is to mean anything, physicians must unequivocally profess and adhere to the inalienable right of all human persons to life," said Al Weir, president of the Christian Medical Association, a faith-based association of doctors.

"While the new American Board of Internal Medicine statement contains a number of laudable elements, a careful examination reveals some critical departure from the traditional Hippocratic oath," said Weir.

The ABIM charter on medical professionalism was the result of several years' work by medical ethicists concerned that in modern times physicians are tempted to abandon their commitment to patient welfare. The group hopes its work will be "a watershed event in medicine," something that will be read and pondered by health care professionals. Ultimately, medical colleges choose which oath its students take before practicing their trade.

"Forces that are largely beyond our control have brought us to circumstances that require a restatement of professional responsibility," writes Harold C. Sox, M.D., the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, in the ABIM's report.

The charter sets forth a fundamental set of medical principles and responsibilities, such as patient welfare and autonomy, social justice, and commitment to professional competence.

The primacy of patient welfare is defined by the charter as a dedication to serving the interest of the patient, putting altruism above market forces and societal pressures. Patient autonomy is defined as empowering patients to make informed decisions about their own treatment: "Patients' decisions about their care must be paramount, as long as those decisions are in keeping with ethical practice and do not lead to demands for inappropriate care," the report states.

It's these sections that the Christian Medical Association objects to. The principles "[discuss] patient welfare and autonomy in vague terms while ignoring the value and sanctity of human life - a vitally important underlying principle that protects patients," said Weir.

He also takes issue with the principle of patient autonomy as set forth by the ABIM.

"Patient autonomy must be weighed against the patient's own misconceptions, the impact of a patient's decision on other lives, and the impact of patient decisions on society as a whole," said Weir.

According to Weir, 86 percent of modern oaths administered by medical schools exclude a promise not to practice euthanasia, the act of ending the life of someone suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition through lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment.

Legend has it that the Hippocratic oath was written some 2,500 years ago by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who is considered the founder of the medical profession. Some historians say it was actually written by a small cult of healers in the fourth century B.C., according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The oath requires doctors to swear by Greek mythological gods to abide by certain principles in treating patients, such as abstaining from sexual relations with patients and keeping all information about their patients confidential.
According to the Association of American Colleges, the tradition of using a doctor's oath did not become widespread until the middle of the 19th Century.

Spokespeople for the ABIM professional charter project did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

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