WASHINGTON — President Obama’s recent appointment of Franciscan Brother Daniel Sulmasy to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has refocused attention on the commission’s specific mandate and prompted questions about its power to shape policy on issues that divide Americans.

Catholic moral theologians and pro-life advocates applauded the appointment of Brother Daniel, whose record on abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and human embryonic stem-cell research is consistently pro-life. They suggest he possesses the perseverance and diplomatic gifts required for extended debates on ideologically charged issues.

At the same time, some Catholic bioethicists raised concerns about the political balance of the new commission and its independence from a White House whose policy on a spectrum of issues differs sharply with Catholic moral teaching.

Since 2009, Brother Daniel, a medical doctor, has served as the Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics at the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine and Divinity School. He is also associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and adjunct professor of medicine at the New York Medical College. He is the author of numerous books and academic papers, including The Healer’s Calling: A Spirituality for Physicians and Other Health Care Professionals, published by Paulist Press.

“Brother Dan Sulmasy is a distinguished physician and ethicist who has brought the Catholic natural-law tradition to bear on important public debates in bioethics,” said Richard Doerflinger, who directs much of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ agenda on life issues. “He will make a fine addition to the president’s commission.”

Doerflinger noted that Brother Daniel has been active nationally in the debate on physician-assisted suicide, co-authoring the American College of Physicians’ position statement against the practice.

Father Thomas Berg, an ethicist who served with Brother Daniel on the Ethics Committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board — where the two lobbied for stem-cell research that can produce cures without destroying human life — was equally pleased.

“Brother Dan is the man for the job,” said Father Berg, director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person. “He has endless patience with the collegial deliberations that take place on bioethics committees. He can exercise some kind of influence and make it a forum to speak the truth in love.”

But Father Berg expressed doubts about the commission’s actual power to shape policy: “I don’t know if it’s empowered to do anything except make recommendations,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we never hear anything more from the commission.”

A ‘Practical’ Council

That skepticism echoes the broader pro-life community’s perception that the president — a self-identified “pragmatist” — evinced little interest in high-level ethical and moral deliberations that might produce judgments in conflict with key elements of the Democratic Party platform — like federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research.

Little is known about the ethical positions of the commission members: “These people are all accomplished and are tops in their field. But only a few have stated their position; most haven’t,” reported Patrick Lee, director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Other members include:

• James Wagner, president of Emory University
• Lonnie Ali, wife of boxer Muhammad Ali
• Anita Allen, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania
• Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center
• Nita Farahany, associate professor of law and philosophy at Vanderbilt University
• Alexander Garza, assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer for the Department of Homeland Security
• Christine Grady, acting chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center
• Stephen Hauser, chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco
• Raju Kucherlapati, professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Genetics
• Nelson Michael, director of the Division of Retrovirology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Critics say their skeptical view of the commission’s actual power has been fostered by the president’s public rhetoric as well as his actions.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama suggested that questions about when human life begins were “above my pay grade.” Five months after he assumed office, he summarily disbanded the Bush-appointed bioethics committee — possibly in reaction to committee members’ criticism of his reversal of the Bush-era stem-cell policy.

President George W. Bush established The President’s Council on Bioethics also in his first year as president. He appointed Dr. Leon Kass, a distinguished University of Chicago bioethicist, to chair the committee. Subsequently, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, the well-known Georgetown University bioethicist, took Kass’ place.

Obama appointed Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and a respected political scientist, to chair his new commission last November.

“As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it’s imperative that we do so in a responsible manner. This new commission will develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses,” said the president.

The White House’s preference for practical policies worries some pro-life advocates, who believe the president, along with many scientists working on embryonic stem-cell research, wants to set aside the debate on fatal embryo research as a “settled matter” and move forward with applications of this cutting-edge technology.

For his part, Brother Daniel disputes the notion that any public consensus has been achieved on the morality of embryonic stem-cell research.

“No one can say the matter is settled,” he said. “Whether the government wants to take a breather and move on to other questions is a different issue.”

Fundamental Moral Questions

Brother Daniel also noted that fundamental questions about human dignity go beyond embryonic stem-cell research.

“The discussion involves care for the elderly, national health care and the distribution of health-care resources, and the ethical implications of regenerative medicine (i.e., the use of stem cells to retard the aging process),” he said.

Regardless of whether the majority of Americans support embryonic stem-cell research, he added, “a society must consider what it will do with these stem cells. Do people want to live until they’re 150? Should we be searching for the fountain of youth and creating people who are genetically enhanced?”

Brother Daniel confirmed that these issues deeply “concern me as an individual.” But he acknowledged that “we meet as a committee, and I will have to see what issues will be addressed.”

If the new bioethics commission will, indeed, be devoted to practical policy-making, Doerflinger predicted that this mandate “may not be as practical as it sounds.” Such activities tend to emphasize rather than deflect confrontations between members of a deliberative body, he said.

“Policy proposals themselves are inevitably affected [or are seen by others as affected] by the political biases and backgrounds of the authors. President Bush’s bioethics council was often able to transcend political divisions by digging beneath the surface of current divides, to bring to light the human values at stake in debates on cloning, genetic engineering, stem-cell research and different approaches to determining death,” said Doerflinger.

Some pro-life activists criticized the Bush-era bioethics committee for issuing overly broad philosophical reflections and wasting an opportunity to shape national policy. But Doerflinger disputed this critique as he suggested that the Bush committee’s high-level publications “will be helpful to physicians, ethicists and policy-makers alike for many years to come. Sometimes trying too hard to be practical only leads to being quickly outdated.”

Pellegrino, a mentor to Brother Daniel during his doctoral studies at Georgetown University, noted that bioethicists should be cautious about working too closely with the government.

“If it’s an advisory body, it should not be a political instrument,” said Pellegrino, professor of medicine and medical ethics at Georgetown and a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics there. The Bush-era council did not include members of the administration, and Pellegrino suggested that policy “was a healthy thing.”

Pellegrino, who celebrated Brother Daniel as a “superb” clinician, physician and philosopher, also suggested that it would be unwise to set aside fundamental moral questions that guide human choices.

“Bioethical issues are some of the most challenging humanity has faced in its long history,” he said. “We must continue to ask: Do we use all these technologies, or do we stay in charge, and in a sense, put a human brake on some innovations? Human beings can be overwhelmed by their technical ingenuity.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.