The Hippocratic Oath, dating from about 460 to 377 BC, reflects the medical knowledge and social concepts of that time. For example, doctors were not allowed to share their knowledge with their patients and other lay people – only with their medical students, their own sons, and their teachers’ sons. Furthermore, the Oath contains a specific prohibition on performing bladder surgery on men (to remove stones), a job reserved for skilled practitioners only, apparently in case it impaired men’s fertility. The prohibition on abortion in the Oath is limited to a specific technique – a pessary (a vaginal suppository), which could cause lethal infections.
The archaic, faith-based Hippocratic Oath (students had to swear by pagan Greek gods) has no legal basis in any country today. It has been replaced in democratic countries with codes of ethics and democratically-decided laws regulating medical practice. The Declaration of Geneva and other modern ethical guidelines put the patient first, and include many directives that are nowhere to be found in the Hippocratic Oath. For example, the Canadian Medical Association’s code of ethics promotes lifelong learning, empathetic communication with patients, the right of patients to refuse treatment, prudent use of health care resources, and many other praiseworthy ethics.
Virtually all medical schools today require some sort of oath of its graduates, but they are largely seen as ceremonial and nonobligatory. The original Hippocratic Oath has been revised and modernized over the centuries to reflect society’s evolving values, changing laws, and new medical technologies. In 1993, of the American medical schools that were still using some version of the Hippocratic Oath, only 8% still included the prohibition on abortion and only 14% included the euthanasia ban. A survey in 2009 of 135 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada found that 11.1% used an unmodified translation of the traditional Hippocratic Oath.
Pro-choice Action Network, Hypocrisy and the Hippocratic Oath (1999) (original Hippocratic Oath reproduced here)
Hagop Kantarjian, MD, and David P. Steensma, MD, Relevance of the Hippocratic Oath in the 21st Century (2014)
The Pharos, The uses of oaths in the 21st century (2016)