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The Hippocratic Oath & Working Towards Change




Carmel Sciberras (November 27), Anton Borg (December 10) and other correspondents have vilified my pro-choice colleagues and myself for forsaking the Hippocratic oath.


I presume they are referring to this translation of the original text: “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and, in like manner, I will not give to a woman an abortive pessary.”


Given that the original oath was adopted at a time when abortion was extremely dangerous to women’s health, it is entirely possible that this section of the Hippocratic oath was intended to prevent doctors from administering abortifacients that would have been dangerous to women, rather than to a developing foetus.


The Hippocratic oath may uphold timeless ethics and values but it has changed significantly since it was first written 2,500 years ago. As one of the symbols of the medical profession, the oath exemplifies the modern ethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence and confidentiality, while also enshrining other principles such as compassion, honesty, humility, integrity and justice. Today, its chief message focuses on the patients’ best interests and not on the prohibition of surgery, euthanasia or abortion, as is generally believed.


Today’s doctors face a number of important ethical issues that are not included in the Hippocratic oath. For example, the original oath makes no mention of shared decision making, avoiding conflicts of interest, treating all patients equally (regardless of ability to pay, social class, education, race etc.) and avoiding the practice of medicine while impaired due to physical or psychological disease.


Allow me also to draw readers’ attention to the last point on the Hippocratic oath that some of us swore to many years ago: “I will strive to change laws which are contrary to patients interests or to my professional ethics.” Since abortion care is healthcare, that is exactly what Doctors for Choice Malta are working towards.


by Prof Isabel Stabile