(VIDEO) Hippocratic Oath, Anyone? Apparently Tom Coburn Was Absent That Day

Jodi Jacobson

Tom Coburn, Senator from Oklahoma and medical doctor, prays for something bad to happen to a Democrat so the cloture vote fails, and proves again that ideology and politics are far more important to some than the promise to "do no harm."

One of the most sacred tenets–perhaps the most sacred tenet– of medicine is the Hippocratic Oath, which, in short, binds medical professionals, and specifically doctors, to the principle of "do no harm."

According to the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the original Greek Version has been updated many times to reflect advances in science, medicine, and culture, but today, in medical schools throughout the United States, medical students take the version of the oath as written in 1964, found in full below, and which in part states:

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are
not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I
tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save
a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life;
this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and
awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a medical doctor, must have been absent that day. 

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There is no other explanation I can possibly think of to excuse the fact that he apparently stated on the Senate floor the other day the desire that people pray for something to befall a Democratic Senator such that the Democrats fell short of 60 votes to achieve cloture on the Senate health reform bill.

Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank reports that:

Going into Monday morning’s crucial Senate vote
on health-care legislation, Republican chances for defeating the bill
had come down to a last, macabre hope. They needed one Democratic
senator to die — or at least become incapacitated.

At 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Milbank continues, "nine hours before the 1 a.m. vote that
would effectively clinch the legislation’s passage — Sen. Tom Coburn
(R-Okla.) went to the Senate floor to propose a prayer."

"What the
American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote
tonight," Coburn said. "That’s what they ought to pray."

You can watch the video excerpt from MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olberman here:

Given the circumstances, Milbank states that

"It was difficult to escape the conclusion that Coburn was referring
to the 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) who has
been in and out of hospitals and lay at home ailing. It would not be
easy for Byrd to get out of bed in the wee hours with deep snow on the
ground and ice on the roads — but without his vote, Democrats wouldn’t
have the 60 they needed."

But you know….Coburn is "pro-life," of course…..On Tuesdays and Thursdays, or whenever it involves a female body. 

Apparently it is not incompatible to be a medical doctor and one of the most profoundly anti-choice men in the Senate, under the guise of something called "pro-life," and to ask people to pray for someone to die or become physically incapacitated so you can have a vote go your way.

I will have to further refine my definition of "pro-life" as I see I am missing something.

And if you didn’t know it yet, now you know: "compassionate conservatism," if such a thing ever existed in the Republican party of the past 15 years, has officially given way to "craven conservatism."

Milbank quotes Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as saying:

"When it reaches a
point where we’re praying, asking people to pray, that senators
wouldn’t be able to answer the roll call, I think it has crossed the

I think that line was crossed a couple miles back, so to speak….

But what it underscores in today’s political debate is this: Medical doctors, like "faith leaders," are often revered just for being who they are, and when they enter politics are assumed to have a "higher standing" than the rest of us.

The reality is that this is not the case.  These are just people, following their own ideology or faith tradition, which may or may not be in the service of others.  Being a medical doctor or a faith leader in politics can just as well mean that you are willing to put yourself out for the purpose of advancing social justice, public health, or human rights, or it might mean you are using your title, privelege and "station" to impose your own or your party’s or your religious ideologies on the rest of us. 

We are used to the Republican Party, and unfortunately medical doctors within it, regularly trying to play God.  Senator Bill Frist demonstrated his willingness to violate the Hippocratic Oath in the service of politics when he went on national radio at the height of the Bush "anti-evidence" era, and asserted that HIV infections could be spread through saliva, which had long-ago been disproven, and which was a scare tactic and nothing more.  He played God with Terri Schaivo to garner political gain at a time when he was listing toward a presidential campaign, and he played God with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, mis-using both his medical degree and his Senate seat to deny millions of people at risk of HIV access to effective prevention strategies.

Frist, it appears also was absent the day the Hippocratic Oath was administered in medical school.  Or he misunderstood and took the "Hypocritical Oath" instead.

So I am not surprised about Tom Coburn praying that someone might possibly be too ill or actually die to keep a vote he didn’t want to happen from happening.  It’s not about medicine, its’ not about patients, its not about what is right for the broader interests of the country.  For Coburn, it is what is right for him, his evangelical cronies and the interests he serves.  Let Hippocrates be damned.

As for the rest of us, unless and until we demand that doctors, faith leaders and other such anointed persons prove themselves in service of the greater good, we should stop giving them a pass based on the title.  Medical doctors, like Emperors, sometimes have "no clothes."


The modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna and taken by students in most medical schools today is as follows:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in
whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with
those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are
required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science,
and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s
knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call
in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are
not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I
tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save
a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life;
this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and
awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous
growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s
family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related
problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special
obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body
as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected
while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act
so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long
experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

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