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  • Society of Bioethics and Medicine

EUTHANASIA, ASSISTED SUICIDE, AND THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

By - Razna Ahmed, Edited by - Nadia Addasi May 26, 2020

The Hippocratic Oath, established about 2,500 years ago, dictates that physicians and medical professionals follow a set of ethical medical standards. The fundamental premise of the Oath is that doctors “will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will [they] make a suggestion to this effect,” as translated from Hippocrates. The Oath is the basis of modern medical treatment.



The Hippocratic Oath is one of the most compelling arguments against the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Euthanasia is the lawful termination of a patient’s life through painless means. Physicians may use discretion in utilizing euthanasia if it is determined that death is a more humane treatment compared to the patient’s disease trajectory and level of suffering. Patients may consent to euthanasia for personal reasons, or proxy may make this decision for the voluntary patient. In contrast, assisted suicide is when a patient takes their own life with the help of their medical team. “Patients remain the driving force in end-of-life care discussions,” according to The Death With Dignity National Center which advocates for the lawful practice of physician-assisted suicide.

Up until the 1960s, modern medicine has rejected the idea of euthanasia; however, the practice is becoming more popular as many Western countries adopted it as policy. In 2009, the Death With Dignity Act became law in Washington State, legalizing medical euthanasia. This was followed by similar laws progressively taking effect in several other states. These recent achievements for the euthanasia movement have brought forth many questions on the ethics of “death as a treatment” and its controversial implications for the physician Hippocratic Oath.

Many believe that freedom of choice and quality of life takes precedence in the face of painful terminal illnesses; euthanasia is thus a welcome policy for many patients and their family members seeking to end prolonged suffering. Many illnesses, for which euthanasia is an option, are debilitating and can strip a patient of their dignity.  Terminal cancer, for example, is not only painful in itself, but may require treatments that are arduous and even incapacitating. Patients may be unable to eat, lose functional mobility, require multiple daily medications, and may need around-the-clock care for tasks of daily living. Rather than suffer the consequences of prolonged treatment for an incurable terminal condition,  patients may instead choose euthanasia. Many believe that this choice is a human right. However, medical teams are obliged to treat the patient with the best course of longevity, exploring all options for a cure, and preventing death. Both euthanasia, which supports a person’s right to die through the help of their medical team, or assisted suicide, which requires the complacency of their medical team, directly opposes their professional and ethical responsibility. 

The transition from providing solutions to terminating life is a harrowing prospect. This new, developing system will require that policymakers and physicians examine the responsibility, ethics, and liability of doctors in the position of administering medical treatment, as well as the parameters and importance of a patient’s quality of life. As a consequence of these considerations, the medical profession may need to consider modifying the ethical standards set by the long-established Hippocratic Oath.

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