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The Hippocratic Oath: Legacy of the Pro-life Patriarch

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 16-22, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/16/97 at 2:00 PM

 

One of the giants of the pro-life movement, Dr. Joseph Stanton of Boston, Mass., died recently. He was a graduate of Yale Medical School, a fellow of the American College of Physicians, and a clinical professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. He and his wife Mary had 11 children. Those who knew Dr. Stanton often referred to him as “the patriarch of the pro-life movement.”

Even before the infamous 1973 Supreme Court rulings that struck down all the anti-abortion laws in the states throughout our country, Dr. Stanton saw, and shuddered at, the prospect of physician healers being transformed into killers through growing societal pressures. He was a physician who was shaken to the very core of his professional being at the thought of fellow members of his healing profession advocating the killing of the helpless unborn and the violation of the moral and physical integrity of women in distress. It was incomprehensible to him that those trained in the healing arts would use the skills that they had gained to kill.

In 1970 “Dr. Joe” established the “Value of Life Committee” and for almost 30 years used his medical knowledge and his remarkably eloquent rhetorical skills to defend the defenseless.

I could not possibly add anything of significance to the magnificent tributes that have already been paid to this man. Even while he lived he was honored by presidents, congressmen, prelates, and, most significantly for him, the “common folk” who struggled alongside him in the pro-life trenches. I was privileged to know him personally for only one year, the last of his earthly life. He had long been a cherished friend of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care, a national Catholic bioethics center based in Boston. He was an indefatigable collaborator in its work, regularly sending in articles and clippings that the Center's ethicists found invaluable in their work. As soon as I met him I was enlisted in his army. No questions asked—just put to work!

The doctor spoke often of how sick at heart he was over the moral corruption of much of the medical profession that had occurred in our century. Without a moral compass there is no medical profession, there are only those skilled in the techniques of the curative or the killing arts.

As a young man graduating from Yale Medical School he would have recited the Hippocratic Oath, swearing that he would “give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel, and in like manner … not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.”

Dr. Stanton became convinced that the return of the Hippocratic Oath would be critical to save the medical profession from growing moral corruption. In a great collaborative effort he updated the oath and had its text copyrighted by the Value of Life Committee. It appeared formally in 1995, the same week as the Pope's monumental encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

Dr. Stanton and his collaborators drew profound encouragement for their project from the Pope's words: “[Life's] deepest inspiration and strongest support lie in the intrinsic and undeniable ethical dimension of the health-care profession, something already recognized by the still relevant Hippocratic Oath, which requires every doctor to commit himself to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness. (EV 89).

Shortly before his death Dr. Stanton transferred to the Pope John Center the copyright to the Restatement of the Hippocratic Oath. He also commissioned a Benedictine monk to render the oath in beautiful handwritten calligraphy.

In September a conference against physician-assisted suicide was held in Portland, Oregon that had been organized and co-sponsored by the Pope John Center, the archdiocese, and the University of Portland. The prolifers in Oregon were struggling mightily to bring about a repeal of the referendum that had legalized physician-assisted suicide, and to do so before it could go into effect. I was also going to be addressing the Catholic Physicians Guild in Portland, and took copies of the Oath to help in the effort against physician-assisted suicide by appealing to a 2,400-year-old medical tradition against killing.

We rejoice in the witness and deeds of such a pro-life warrior as Dr. Joseph Stanton and derive comfort and encouragement knowing that he continues his tireless efforts on behalf of the unborn, the dying, the weak and the vulnerable, now through his all-the-more-efficacious prayers before his Father's throne in heaven. Requiescat in pace.

John Haas is president of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care in Boston, Mass.

Copies of the Restatement of the Hippocratic Oath, suitable for framing, may be purchased through the Pope John Center, 159 Washington St., Boston, MA 02135; 617-787-1900