One of the nation's most prominent bioethicists, Ezekiel Emanuel has a master's degree in biochemistry from Oxford. A medical degree and a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard. He's written or co-written seven books, won numerous awards, and heads the clinical bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. And he's currently on detail to the White House, as a health policy adviser at the Office of Management and Budget.
Such accomplishments might normally make one the family star. But in the Emanuel clan, which features one current chief of staff to the president (that would be Rahm) and a mogul who inspired the Jeremy Piven character in HBO's "Entourage" (that would be Ari), he's naturally been a bit overshadowed.
Until the last few weeks, that is.
The sometimes ugly health care debate has dragged Ezekiel Emanuel very reluctantly into the spotlight, as opponents of Obama's proposed reform have seized on snippets of his past writings to bolster their charge that he and the administration advocate a system where bureaucrats — on what former Gov. Sarah Palin has famously called "death panels" — would play God, ruling on whether ailing Grandma deserves medical care.
The irony, he says, is that he's long been a vocal opponent of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. What he does advocate are living wills, and voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues — both as a means to improve end-of-life care.
A fellow bioethicist says Palin and others couldn't have picked a less appropriate target.
"If anything, Zeke has always gone to the other extreme, being very aggressive in trying to help people stay alive," says George Annas, a professor of health law and bioethics at the Boston University School of Public Health. "This has been totally insane."
Emanuel, an oncologist by specialty, says he began focusing in the earliest stages of his career on trying to improve care for the dying. "Almost no one was doing this," he says. "I was told at medical school that this would be a quick end to my career."
"But I worked pretty hard and against the odds to improve end-of-life care," he says. "And so to have that record and that work completely perverted — it's pretty shocking, and it's also very, very hurtful."