M. Therese Lysaught didn’t grow up with dreams of being a bioethicist.
She wanted to be a chemist, so when she got to college, that’s what she studied.
But it was at that point that questions of ethics began to intrigue her, and she earned a master’s in theology at Notre Dame and a doctorate in religion and theological ethics at Duke University.
Then she combined her interests in science and ethics to work in medical ethics, where her background helped her understand some of the issues in areas like genetics or end-of-life care.
“It’s like any other vocation in life,” Lysaught said. “The road isn’t straight.”
Lysaught, director of the graduate program in Healthcare Mission Leadership at Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics & Healthcare Leadership of Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, was named a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life in December.
While she isn’t sure of everything that appointment will entail — the packet was mailed to her office, which she hasn’t been to because of COVID-19 — she is preparing a paper for an online colloquium in February.
The paper, on the anthropology and theology of “Laudato Si’” and “Fratelli Tutti,” looks at what the meaning of the human person is in those two encyclicals.
It’s a topic with great relevance to Lysaught’s usual focus at the Neiswanger Institute, where her students are or are working to become directors of Catholic identity or mission and ministry at Catholic hospitals.
“We have 40 fabulous students from institutions all over the U.S., studying for their certificates, masters or doctorates,” she said. “A big part of what we do is helping people who lead Catholic institutions understand what are the fundamentals of Catholic theology. They are facing issues every single day that pertain to human people, both patients and the people who work there. We’d like to say that being a Catholic institution makes a positive difference in how an institution cares for its caregivers, how the caregivers care for the patients, how the institution connects with the community.”
While Lysaught is uncertain how her work caught the eye of the academy’s board, she suspects it might have something to do with “Catholic Bioethics and Social Justice,” a 2018 book she co-edited with colleague Michael McCarthy after looking for a book to use in a course on the same topic. Finding none, they created it.
“We sat down and said, ‘What would it look like if you brought Catholic social justice to bear on bioethics?’ You would start to see traditional issues in a slightly different way,” she said. “For example, we spend a lot of time talking about end-of-life issues, but not a lot of time talking about race in end-of-life issues, and there are huge disparities there.”
COVID-19 has exposed issue after issue, including disparities in access to vaccines.
“Try to think about the vaccine question from a non-U.S. perspective,” she said. “We in the U.S. who are usually the haves, we continue to be the haves. We have ordered three times as much vaccine as we need for our population. We need be talking about that.”
That’s the topic of an article Lysaught recently wrote for America magazine.
Lysaught said she hopes the appointment to the academy will help her develop a focus on global bioethics. The Pontifical Academy for Life has 163 honorary, ordinary and corresponding members, with only about 10 percent from the United States.
All of those issues dovetail with Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to look to the people on the margins, she said.
“This is a big part of what Pope Francis is about,” Lysaught said. “He wants us to see and to notice the people who are invisible to us. How can we change our perspective, change our actions, change our hearts so that we see them?”
Lysaught’s appointment is for five years and can be renewed twice, according the release from the Vatican press office.
She is hoping to travel to Rome for the academy’s meeting in September, a meeting that has been postponed from its usual February date.
Lysaught’s appointment was announced Dec. 10, along with the appointments of Sister Veronica Rob, a moral theologian and ethicist from Nairobi, and Leonardo Palombi, an Italian professor of public health and editor of the journal “Biomedicine & Prevention.”
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in the announcement that the academy is taking advantage of a larger number of perspectives to improve its work.
“Of course what’s new about it is not a change of topic: evangelical wisdom on the immense gift of human life must continue to deeply inspire our commitment, to illuminate all aspects of human experience and the culture of life,” Archbishop Paglia said. “But the good news of the Gospel about human life is meant to be a source of inspiration and a theme for cultural, political and social dialogue, also and above all with those who do not feel exactly the same way we do but, like us, have at heart life and human society.”
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