Edmund Pellegrino – Gone to his reward

Edmund Pellegrino died peacefully in his sleep on June 13.  A peaceful death – a gentle end to a life of unwavering generosity and service to the common good and his fellow man – seems an appropriate passing for one of the finest doctors and bioethicists, Catholic or otherwise, of the past half century.

There is much that can be said of his full and eventful life, which ended just a few days shy of his ninety-third birthday.  Though it is impossible to recount all of his accomplishments, the reader should know a few.  He served as the president of the Catholic University of America and wrote over twenty books and more than 600 scholarly articles (a good introduction to his thought is The Philosophy of Medicine Reborn: An Edmund Pellegrino Reader).  He was a dedicated physician, deeply committed to his patients, serving them for over fifty years.  As you can see just from this short account, he obviously influenced hundreds – indeed, thousands – of people.

I was one of them.

I first met him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the John Carroll Society.  As an adult convert to Catholicism, I was looking for role models for what it meant to be a professional, a Catholic, and a good citizen.  And I found such a role model in Ed – a man for whom there was no conflict between science and faith, a man whose faith framed his life and deepened the knowledge he gained from science and experience.

I was with him on a subsequent pilgrimage – this time to Sicily – when President George Bush announced his decision on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (limiting such funding to stem cell lines created prior to August 10, 2001).  At the time, I was doing a good deal of work on that issue. And I joined Ed on a hastily convened panel to discuss Bush’s decision, a panel we subsequently repeated at Visitation School in Washington D.C.  I was honored to be on it, but did not deserve to be.  It would have been more than sufficient to listen to Ed alone.  After all, for many in this country and elsewhere, he was known as the “father of bioethics.”

You can gain some idea of the important role he played in the field of bioethics by considering just the following facts: he served for many years as director of Georgetown’s Kennedy School of Ethics; he succeeded Leon Kass as Chair of the President’s Council for Bioethics; and in 2004, he was appointed to UNESCO’s Bioethics Committee.

Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D. by James Crowley

But there was another role that best illustrates Pellegrino’s special approach to bioethics – he founded the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown Medical School.  Clinical bioethics, a bioethics of the bedside, was Ed’s particular focus.  He was, after all, first and foremost (as he always pointed out) a doctor.  And doctors have patients.  The care of patients is their primary responsibility.  Decisions have to be made in the difficult, complex, confusing context of the suffering patient.  Ed felt that though many no longer understood the importance of making patient-sensitive decisions, doctors in particular were losing this skill, this sensitivity.  The Center for Clinical Bioethics was intended to bring that back into focus.

A couple of times, Ed asked me to join him, since I was a lawyer, when he worked through ethical, fact-based hypotheticals with medical residents training at the hospital. I can assure you that it was an education for me as well as for them.  He was a man finely tuned to the ethical nuances of any particular healthcare situation, though in whatever post he held, at Georgetown or elsewhere, his work always remained within a fully Catholic understanding of life issues.

Often death brings regret for the living.  We wish we had taken the opportunity to let the deceased know how much his or her life meant to us.  In Ed’s case, however, I am happy to note that two events happened in the past few months that let him know how much his life meant to others. 

First, in March, Georgetown held a “Pellegrino Symposium,” during which his life and work were celebrated and a special portrait was unveiled, and for which many of those thousands he influenced were in attendance. 

Then just a few weeks ago, the Kennedy School of Ethics held its renowned Intensive Course in Bioethics.  Ed returned to teach his master class in Virtue, at the very end of the course. By all accounts, it was a bravura performance. A few days later, he died.   

A great man, a scholar, a physician, a Catholic, a gentleman, Ed Pellegrino was all of these, and more.  Everyone who knew him will miss him deeply.   

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.