(Photography by Jason Smith)

The soul of medicine

For ethicist and doctor Daniel Sulmasy, medical progress is about more than the body.

Daniel Sulmasy is no stranger to the intersection of ethics and public policy. Before President Obama named him to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in 2010, Sulmasy served on the New York State Task Force on Life and Law and on the Ethics Committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board. Now the Kilbride-Clinton professor of medicine and ethics at the University, he is also associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

Sulmasy is a medical doctor and philosopher who for almost 27 years also lived as a Franciscan friar. More a thinker than a clinician, he has devoted much of his professional life to writing about problems in medical ethics. He is especially concerned about decision making at the end of life.

“We’re all going to die,” he told U.S. Catholic in 2010. “Continuing to deny that gets in the way of coming to grips with our humanity and all the important things that we need to do during that period, which can be incredibly rich. Sometimes I enter the room of a patient, and they’re dying in faith and hope and love. I want to take my shoes off before I go into the room. It’s holy ground that I’m treading.”

His writings also explore the connections between spirituality and medicine—connections he believes lie at the heart of the latter but that the medical profession has increasingly neglected. “I think both patients and clinicians are experiencing a kind of spiritual bottoming out,” he told U.S. Catholic. “The soul seems to have gone out of medicine. Patients feel alienated now by the very progress they were looking for; they feel they’re being treated like machines.”

Sulmasy grew up in Queens, the son of a police officer. In medical school he envisioned himself as a missionary in an inner city or Appalachia. After he joined the Franciscans he went to Thailand to work with Cambodian refugees. He liked what he was doing but not the heat and eventually realized he would flourish best as an academic.

Before coming to Chicago, Sulmasy taught at Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University. He has written scores of articles and four books, and he is editor in chief of the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. He is also a football fan, rooting for the Green Bay Packers, and likes to read poetry, especially T. S. Eliot.

Sulmasy left the Franciscans last January after falling in love and deciding to marry—something he could not do and still remain a friar. But his faith and religious training still deeply inform his thinking. “The Catholic way of doing ethics for centuries has been largely philosophical, following a natural law approach,” he says. “The arguments are designed to appeal to people of reason and good will.”

As the sole member of the presidential bioethics commission with a background in religious studies, he brings to its debate a special sensitivity to spiritual perspectives. In a setting that resembles a cross between a congressional hearing and a graduate seminar, he is quick to raise basic philosophical issues, as he did often during the commission’s November meeting.

Sulmasy is wary of ethicists getting too much caught up with policy questions. “There is a tendency for people who do policy work [to think] that balancing outcomes is the sole way to answer ethical questions,” he says. “It all becomes sort of risk-benefit analysis. It can take on sometimes a far too utilitarian flavor.”