Thomas A. Cavanagh. Hippocrates’ Oath and Asclepius’ Snake:The Birth of the Medical Profession. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 177 pp.
Publisher’s Description T. A. Cavanaugh’s Hippocrates’ Oath and Asclepius’ Snake: The Birth of the Medical Profession articulates the Oath as establishing the medical profession’s unique internal medical ethic – in its most basic and least controvertible form, this ethic mandates that physicians help and not harm the sick. Relying on Greek myth, drama, and medical experience (e.g., homeopathy), the book shows how this medical ethic arose from reflection on the most vexing medical-ethical problem – injury caused by a physician – and argues that deliberate iatrogenic harm, especially the harm of a doctor choosing to kill (physician assisted suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and involvement in capital punishment), amounts to an abandonment of medicine as an exclusively therapeutic profession. The book argues that medicine as a profession necessarily involves stating before others what one stands for: the good one seeks and the bad one seeks to avoid on behalf of the sick, and rejects the view that medicine is purely a technique lacking its own unique internal ethic. It concludes noting that medical promising (as found in the White Coat Ceremony through which U. S. medical students matriculate) implicates medical autonomy which in turn merits respect, including honoring professional conscientious objections.
Abstract Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
Extract The assumption that abortion is the treatment of choice for a neural tube defect, regardless of its severity, is implicit in both the physician’s offering the screening service and the parents’ acceptance of it. . . . If the physician was prepared to take the child’s life before birth, can he legitimately refuse to do so after birth if requested? . . . prenatal decision-making cannot be disassociated from post-natal decision-making. They are of the same order logically and ethically. To my mind both abortion and infanticide are unacceptable and represent a concept that is a huge step backwards for the medical profession . . . .
Extract The country that liberalizes abortion creates an atmosphere that encourages abortion. . . Is abortion really no different than any other operation? The people who see no difference are the same people who see all the difference in the world between feticide and infanticide. . . .Dr. Watters refers derisively to the “pro-life” group as the “Canadian Crusaders for Compulsory Pregnancy. . . Is it so difficult to understand that in certain circumstances principles come before expedients? . . . Killing has always been one of the most tempting ways for man to achieve his immediate ends. The numerous complications that may result from abortion, especially the long-term ones, provide good medical reasons for encouraging a pregnancy to continue.
Extract . . . What to do with the hopelessly unfit? I had thought at a younger time of my life that the legalizing of euthanasia . . . Now my face is set against the legalization of euthanasia for any person, who, having been well, has at last become ill . . . But I am in favor of euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born-Nature’s mistakes.
. . . should the social organism grow up and forward to the desire to relieve decently from living the utterly unfit, sterilize the less unfit, and educate the still less unfit-then the Law must also grow, along with the amplitude of our new ideas for a wiser and better world, and fit the growing organism easily and well; and thereafter civilization will pass on and on in beauty.