ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Each year the crowd grows. Graduating medical students at the University of Michigan are coming to the Hippocratic Oath Banquet sponsored by three Christian medical organizations. At this year's third annual event June 6, 30 students and 12 graduates attended.

Even though Michigan's medical school offered them a version of the oath two days later at graduation, the new physicians came to the banquet to publicly swear they would protect life “from conception to a natural death.”

“I was interested in taking the oath just to affirm in a public way my commitment to life,” said graduate Michele Gray. “My commitment is to not provide abortions and not participate in or encourage life-defeating procedures. I want instead to be promoting life for my patients.” As she begins her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Missouri next month, she said the oath's perspective is particularly important for her profession.

Another graduate who took the oath, Tony Yang, will start residency at the University of California in San Francisco.

In his specialty, pathology, Yang said he does not expect to be challenged with life-and-death ethical decisions. For him, the oath was a means to witness to his Catholic faith in the public forum of his profession.

“I'm probably not as good a witness as some others, but I think this gives me a chance to do it. As a Christian physician, and even just as a Christian, it's important to stand up for what is right and not let it be drowned out amidst voices that are saying so many other things nowadays,” Yang explained.

“I'm still going to the U. of M. graduation, but I feel the oath being said [there] has been stripped of a lot of things. Although the oath itself is not Christian by origin, it contains elements that parallel Christian — and even basic human — principles that should have been retained.”

New Need

Dr. William Martin, an internist who practices out of Mercy Primary Care in Ann Arbor, said he was not aware of changes undergone by the oath or of the version presented at the banquet, which he did not attend.

“I took the oath when I graduated from medical school in Rome in the 1960s. I didn't think about it very much or hang it up in my office — patients don't usually care as much about those things as they do about getting well.”

But he added, “I think these things were simply taken for granted, that you did no harm and that you sought to heal your patients. But if they are trying to dilute these principles, or add another agenda, then maybe a new presentation is needed.”

Dr. William Toffler, the keynote speaker for the event, agrees.

“If doctors don't stand up for the tradition of not doing harm,” he said, “if we aren't willing to be forthright and speak up for the sanctity of life, our culture is lost.”

Toffler, a family practitioner who teaches at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, co-founded Physicians for Compassionate Care, a national group that works to protect the practice of medicine from the threat posed by the Right to Die movement.

Physicians for Compassionate Care lobbied successfully to have the Oregon Medical Association take a position against assisted suicide; and it now trains doctors to give palliative care to the terminally ill.

“But if we do speak up, people will listen,” Toffler went on. “They will say, ‘There are those people whom we respect, from this profession that we revere. We believe them.’”

Dr. Rusty Chavey, who founded the Oath Banquet, agrees. “Many young people bring these ideals to medical school. We need to make sure they don't lose them here,” said the Ann Arbor family-practice physician, a member of the Catholic Medical Association's Lansing, Mich., guild.

Chavey said medical schools across the country currently water down the oath to the point where it is almost meaningless. “Some versions even leave out the part where a physician promises not to seduce his/her patient,” he said.

Just as the number taking the oath has grown each year, Chavey said, so has the list of organizations sponsoring the banquet. “Last year the Christian Medical and Dental Association joined with us in the Catholic Medical Association; at this year's banquet the Culture of Life Foundation helped with our expenses.”

The Culture of Life Foundation publishes a newsletter, Medical Facts of Life, which appeals to university medical students, he said, because it offers “data rather than dogma.”

Toffler said events like the Oath Banquet can help preserve a “reasoned dialogue” about the ethical practice of medicine. “It's critical that doctors be involved in these issues. There have been 2,400 years of a consistent ethic. Even at the time of Hippocrates, a people without any theology understood the inherent conflict of interest in asking a physician to be involved in the death of a patient.

“We've become dulled as a society, and even as a profession. But this isn't anything new,” he said.

“It's the same ethic of not doing any harm.”

Kate Ernsting writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.