Refugees from Mexico and Central America wait to see if they’ll be allowed to enter the U.S. Photo by Chris Stone

By Theodore Friedmann

The venerable Hippocratic Oath, by which most modern Western physicians abide, famously guides what is proper and ethical in medical behavior. “The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present and foretell the future,” wrote Hippocrates more than 1,600 years ago. (He) “must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

In other words, in our effort to alleviate suffering, physicians are required to understand the problem, know what caused it and understand what will happen as a result of our actions.

Sadly, there appears to be no such ethics code, formal training or devotion to truth and beneficence in government and public service. We need only to look at the current U.S. policy of zero tolerance immigration to see quite the opposite effect: a policy that accepts and even admits to being designed to inflict harm in the name of discouraging immigration, even of persons seeking lawful asylum.

All three tenets of the Hippocratic Oath have been turned on their head by this heartless policy, one that, if it had been place in previous decades, would have denied entry to millions of “huddled masses,” including me and my family.

The first Hippocratic tenet — the need to understand the origins of a societal problem — as applied to U.S. immigration policy has been replaced by loud and repeated untruthful claims of harm inflicted by unwanted immigrants who purportedly threaten the American way of life and social structure. It’s the classic BIG LIE, repeated loudly and often until it is numbingly accepted as truth, as occurred so disastrously in Europe in the 1930s.

The second tenet — the need to understand the existing state of a social issue — is an extension of the first principle. In the current immigration debate, this tenet degenerates into a delusionary and cacophonous din about how the United States has lost its imagined identity as a homogeneous, white Christian society.

Dr. Theodore Friedmann, professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Photo via

The noise overwhelms history, reality and ignores the societal, psychic and intellectual strengths provided to any recipient population by immigration. Such a narrow and homogenous society is weak and vulnerable to unforeseen threats, like a replanted forest comprising only a few species of trees.

The third tenet – correction of societal problems – requires looking beyond simplistic slogans or quick fixes to recognize and actively to repair underlying and fundamental policy failures.

What is Plan B when Plan A inevitably proves imperfect?

In this case, how should immigration policy-makers respond to the consequences of family separations brought about by their action — the de facto incarceration of infants and toddlers and the prohibition of physical comfort for suffering children; the exposure of children to abuse, intentional or not, at the hands of untrained and uncertified agencies; the deportation of parents and other caretakers without procedures in place for future reunification?

In all other areas of surrogate child care — such as foster care — certification, licensing and training are mandated by law. But here, ill-conceived wholesale family separations and related programs were enacted by politicians and bureaucrats without any apparent care or concern for their inevitably disastrous consequences.

A plague on the houses of those who treat children as tools to punish real or imagined social misdeeds, who implement hypocritical mechanisms to correct those perceived problems, but then claim it is the responsibility of others to clean up their mess.

The word “hypocritical” is not inappropriate here. Government officials who design and implement such programs should be required to stare into the eyes of desperate, crying children to test whether they realize, in some deep neural circuit, that they are complicit in a moral and ethical outrage.

These comments do not deny the undisputed right and need of governments to define and secure borders and to regulate immigration. It is the implementation of programs to achieve those legitimate goals through willful cruelty and psychic scarring of children and even through deliberate creation of orphans that labels these programs unethical and unworthy of the human and American spirit.

Dr. Friedmann is a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego. He was awarded the 2015 Japan Prize for Medicine for his pioneering research and contributions to the development of gene therapy.

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