Daniel Callahan never stopped asking hard questions. The week before he died, on July 16, two days before his eighty-ninth birthday, Dan was still writing—despite the burdens of the pulmonary disease that had plagued his life for some years and would finally end it. He had just sent off another piece to someone, Sidney Callahan told me. She spoke in the what-would-you-expect tone of someone who had witnessed Dan’s prodigious productivity over sixty-five years of marriage.
Dan was one of the most influential editors in the history of Commonweal and the preeminent creator of the field of bioethics. He was a good friend, as is Sidney, herself a Commonweal contributor and until a few years ago a member of its board of directors. Dan was also a mentor, a model, a colleague, a boss, and an inspiration. Not long after inviting me, age twenty-two, to write an essay for a book he was editing, he recruited me to join the Commonweal staff and eventually to join him at the Hastings Center, the struggling venture he had co-founded and that would become a major fountainhead for the international interdisciplinary field of bioethics. I was a modest witness to what I consider two interrelated phases of Dan’s life work.
It is a shock to me now to realize how brief was the first, the Commonweal Catholic phase. Dan began writing for the magazine in 1958. He was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, a Catholic finding his footing in a very secular setting. He actually worked at the magazine only from 1961 to 1968.
“Only” is a relative term. Those were the years of civil rights struggles, the Second Vatican Council, the war in Vietnam, campus turmoil, resurgent feminism, sexual revolution, urban riots, Humanae vitae, and assassinations from JFK to RFK by way of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dan wrote his way into and through all of that. The titles of five books he published in seven years capture the era: The Mind of the Catholic Layman (1963), Honesty in the Church (1965), The New Church: Essays in Catholic Reform (1966), The Secular City Debate (1966), and The Catholic Case for Contraception (1969).
Meanwhile, Dan and Sidney were raising six children, and she had written The Illusion of Eve: Modern Woman’s Quest for Identity (1965) and Beyond Birth Control: The Catholic Experience of Sex (1968).
Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (1970), the more than five-hundred-page product of two years of research, was the hinge on which Dan’s life swung to a half-century of work in medical and scientific ethics. The book took Dan to ten nations in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. If he had insisted on asking hard questions in his Commonweal years, about the role of the laity, contraception, honesty in the church, and the truthfulness of Catholic claims, he did no less in bioethics: about abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, embryonic stem-cell research, allocation of scarce medical resources, defining death, care of the dying, the promise and perils of technology, the dynamics of research, medical funding, and the cost of medical care.
Time and again, Dan provoked controversy, sometimes heated controversy, by defying the reigning assumptions of many colleagues in the worlds of medicine and biomedical research. He questioned their faith in unlimited progress, the priority of individual autonomy and the invocation of personal choice in resolving biomedical quandaries, and the reflexive elevation of health, and especially of extending life, over competing dimensions of human well-being. For two decades, books with titles and subtitles containing phrases like “setting limits” and “false hopes” and “what price better health?” and “how medical costs are destroying our health care system” spun out Dan’s questions like a string of firecrackers. He warned against technological and research “imperatives”—if we can do it or discover it, we should. He dismayed feminists by combining a pro-choice argument regarding the law with a stringent view of what, in fact, might justify abortions morally. He created a stir by advising President George W. Bush to maintain restrictions on the use of embryos for stem-cell research.
These caveats weren’t coming from just anyone. Dan was, after all, one of the rare philosophers elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and a recipient of the Freedom and Scientific Responsibility Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.