Edmund Pellegrino, a “conservative” bioethicist who won the respect of colleagues of all persuasions, died this week at the age of 92. To the public he was probably best known as the second chairman of the President’s Council for Bioethics under George W. Bush. Under his predecessor, Leon Kass, the Council produced some memorable work, but was savagely (and unjustly) criticised for being Bush’s lapdog. In Bush’s second term Pellegrino managed to soothe ruffled feathers without compromising his own principles and the controversies died down.
He was the founding editor of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, and the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Clinical Bioethics. He also served as President of The Catholic University of America from 1978 to 1982.
His research interests included the history and philosophy of medicine, professional ethics, and the physician-patient relationship. He published more than 600 articles and chapters and 23 books on medical science, philosophy, and ethics.
In an era of scientism, Pellegrino was a resolute humanist. Here are a few lines from an interview from 2010:
“What is it to be a human? Is there any distinction between humans and other species? What are those distinctions and how do they affect the ethical decisions that we must make? Are there some things which ought never to be done?... when you ask these questions, you are asking the kinds of questions that science alone cannot answer. Science can tell us how we work. Science can tell us what we can do to modify those workings. Science can explain the way things are related to each other. We can probe into how they have come about through the use of the experimental method. But, science cannot ever tell us what we ought to do, or what we should do.”
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