Bioethics Blogs

Physicians, the morality of euthanasia, and the Hippocratic Oath

In his post on Monday, Tom Garigan suggested that one of the primary reasons that those who favor physician-assisted suicide propose that physicians be the ones providing the means of death is that the involvement of physicians gives moral certification to what is being done. I think this is a very important insight. As I have thought about what he wrote I have been thinking about what makes the medical profession a moral enterprise and how that relates to physician-assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia.

A key thing that distinguishes a profession, and particularly the medical profession, from a trade or association of technicians is the idea that a profession has a set of moral standards which helps to define the profession. Historically, the Hippocratic Oath was the thing that set physicians apart as a profession. There are several things about that historic oath which led to physicians being seen as part of a profession that was respected for its moral standing. One of those was recognizing a higher moral authority before which the oath was sworn. Another was a commitment to doing what was best for the patient. There was also a specific list of things which the Hippocratic physician would not do, the things that were ethically prohibited. This included administering poison (euthanasia), abortion, surgery (which the Hippocratic physician was not trained to do), and taking advantage of anyone in the household of those being treated (particularly sexually). Those prohibitions make it clear that there are moral standards which take precedence over the individual physician’s judgment.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.