How a Catholic scientist stood up for her principles

How a Catholic scientist stood up for her principles

Marcia Riordan

Thomas More Centre Summer School talk

The annual Thomas More Centre Summer School took place from February 24-26, 1995, with the usual roster of excellent speakers and topics - Bishops William Brennan and George Pell, Brother Andrew, Rita Joseph, Dr Bernadette Tobin, Sr Mary Augustine, Dr Anthony Quinlan and many others, including Marcia Riordan, a young scientist who works in a major Melbourne hospital. The edited text of her address is published on this page. Of the over 200 enrolled for the Summer School, almost all were young, some in work and some in tertiary training.

The Thomas More Centre continues to expand its work, with book distribution, production of pamphlets on the Faith and parish youth groups. Seven parish information days were held recently.

A few years ago I changed jobs and went to work in a major Melbourne hospital's pathology laboratory. We had weekly meetings in which the medical staff - of which I was the most junior member - discussed patients. On one particular occasion, the major news was that a child had been diagnosed with Di George Syndrome.

Patients such as this are very rare and are unable to mount a normal response to invading micro-organisms. Unless they are placed in a germ-free environment, even the most minor infections may be fatal. We discussed the child's situation and the real possibility that despite the great care in the hospital it was very likely that he would succumb to infection.

By the end of the meeting, one of the doctors present had decided that the patient needed a fetal thymic transplant to save his life. One of the junior doctors was instructed to call Monash University to organise the obtaining of some fetal thymus from an aborted baby.

I could not believe what I had just heard. No one else seemed shocked, but I could not just sit there and do nothing. I prayed for God's help and wisdom, feeling that I was too upset to risk saying anything on the spot. Realising that the transplant would not take place for a few months, I decided not to say anything then and there but to go away and think and prepare for battle.

Fetal transplants

There must be some other way of saving this child without using aborted tissue. Back in 1989 I had been to a conference organised by Peter Singer's Monash Bioethics Centre on fetal transplants. The conference was titled "The Fetus as a Tissue Donor: Use or Abuse?" Most of the speakers could see very little wrong with using 'wasted' tissue. However, one scientist, Dr Peter McCullagh, who has spoken at Thomas More Summer Schools in the past, warned that fetal transplants may not be the wonder cures that some were claiming.

I began to prepare my case. Over the next month or so, I spoke to some of my Thomas More friends, looked up what some of the feminists said - Robin Rowlands did not like the idea either, although not for exactly the same reasons. I re-read the relevant parts of Peter McCullagh's book, the notes I had taken at that conference, in fact anything which I could get my hands on. I was beginning to feel I had a case.

Now I had to prepare my tactics. Not wanting to start a debate against the whole department at once, I thought I had only to win over our Senior Clinician, so I left a short letter under his door which stated that I would be very sad if he used fetal organs to try to cure the patient's Di George Syndrome, if there were any other way. I asked him to read the journals I had attached.

It seemed as if there were other ways. I had found two of them described in medical journals. In one, thymus tissue was obtained at the time of cardiac surgery while the other used a relative's bone marrow - and we were already doing bone marrow transplants in the hospital.

The whole department, and other departments, became involved. The Senior Clinician wanted to know everyone's opinion, and everyone wanted to know mine. Was I a Catholic? Then I could only argue on religious or scientific grounds, not both! Well I had news for them: I was going to argue on both grounds.

They gave me articles from medical journals which claimed that "Catholics should keep their noses out of medicine" while I answered those charges with articles from New Scientist on "Why we should keep an eye on doctors!". I questioned whether the scientific rationalistic approach was capable of sustaining a moral order comparable to Christianity's.

I suggested that we would be stealing the organs from someone who would use them and reminded them that we complain loudly about the Chinese government's practice of using or selling organs belonging to victims of capital punishment.

Fortunately, at the time I was having these arguments about fetal transplants here in Melbourne, transplants were banned in the U.S. Under both the Reagan and Bush administrations, fetal transplants were banned in any Federally funded institution, whether a university or hospital. (Since then, the pro-abortion Clinton and his wife Hilary have reversed this). However, at the time, the fact that the Americans would not allow it seemed to have a real effect on the discussions.


Of the main staff involved, there were three doctors and three scientists. One of the doctors was a Filipino training in Australia for a year. As a Catholic she did not like the idea and did not think it would be allowed in the Philippines. The other two scientists ended up siding with me - by accident, I think. They had been brought up as Catholics, but I was not sure how much of this had stuck. However, one evening when the Senior Clinician came in to have his usual debate with me, he turned to the others to ask for their opinion and was smartly told, "We are all Catholics in here!"

But we had not won yet. The other doctor was siding with the Senior Clinician who eventually faxed the U.S. to seek the opinion of one of the leading pathologists: would he use fetal organs from aborted children or would he prefer to use parental or sibling bone marrow? We waited anxiously for a reply. Then the Filipino doctor came running in waving a fax and announced with a smile that "He prefers bone marrow."

And so in the end bone marrow was preferred to fetal tissue for our patient. Since then, all patients requiring transplants at that hospital have received bone marrow.

To finish my story, I should add that to this day we all remain the best of friends. When reunited, we continue to have lively discussions, although often on a lighter note!