|Thomas and son Emanuele|
Dr. Thomas Sardella obtained his Master in Research in Biological Sciences in Rome University – Tor Vergata – with summa cum laude following a 5-year course. The subjects he studied included zoology, botany, molecular biology, biochemistry, embryology, genetics, anatomy, physiology, cytology and histology, and ecology. He then successfully completed a Ph.D. course in the Faculty of Biomedical and Life sciences in a leading British university carrying out scientific research on spinal cord regeneration and transplantation of adult cells in animal models. He was then employed as a research assistant in the same university and went on deepening his understanding of pain and its transmission through the central nervous system.
I met with Thomas in one of my trips north. We had lunch together in an Italian restaurant next to Edinburgh Haymarket station where we ate a delicious pasta all’ amatriciana!
Fortunately, I have a note of our discussion - which now follows:
JS: Thomas, tell me about the adventure which led you to put your entire future in jeopardy?
TS: John, as you probably know, funding research is not considered a priority in the present critical financial situation. Year after year it is becoming harder and harder to secure money for scientific research, so my work contract in the university in which I was working was to end on the 31st of December 2011 due to limitation of funding. My boss is a leading researcher in his field and we were hoping to find a grant to pay my research and salary to support my family, while we were waiting for a larger five year grant. Finally, a small funding opportunity arose at the end of September 2011. This was supposed to keep me going for the first six months of 2012 and consisted in a collaboration with a research group in San Diego (USA).
JS: What did the research involve?
TS: The research group led by Dr. M. in San Diego would take tissue from an unborn child immediately after an induced abortion. This was carried out around the 8th week of gestation and then the American team would culture the tissue from the embryo in the appropriate conditions. The cells would then be transplanted in the central nervous system in animal models. Slices from these transplanted animals were to be sent to my group in Britain where I was to analyse them. This collaboration was necessary as my group has renowned knowledge and skills.
As you can notice I was not going to be directly involved in the abortion, but how could I have looked through the microscope forgetting that those cells were taken away from the child together with his/her life?
JS: Why as a scientist do you think it was wrong?
TS: The same question was put to me by a student in the John Paul Academy secondary school during a talk I gave some time ago.
My answer is surprisingly simple! If we agree that it is wrong to kill a human being, a member of the homo sapiens species, then we need to ask ourselves when do we become homo sapiens? For every organism of the animal kingdom it is the same answer: when a sperm cell fertilises the egg of the same species, any zoologist or embryologist will affirm that a new organism is conceived. When a human egg is fertilised by a human sperm cell there is nothing we can do to stop the new embryo from being part of our species. The new individual must be considered a human being.
Based on this knowledge, who can deprive this young human being of his/her right to live? Who can assign to the stages of embryonic development a moment when he/she holds human being’s rights? Who can arbitrarily choose a date when he/she acquires this right so that before this he/she can be legally killed?
JS: What was your first reaction when you found out about this research?
TS: I still remember when I read the email sent from San Diego about the requirement of human abortion in this collaboration: I leaned back on my chair with a feeling of repulsion and told myself I could not and would not do this. How could I convince myself that those 8 weeks old human beings did not have the right to live, and my career, my salary and my family were more important than their lives?
So I decided to lose my job.
JS: If it was not you killing those embryos and if the mother chose willingly to abort her baby, why did you feel that way?
TS: That same evening my wife, who has studied bioethics, confirmed that my stand was correct. We consulted Italian bioethics’ textbooks that asserted that I would have become a passive and remote collaborator of the abortion procedure: that is why I could not stop feeling so bad.
Not to be considered a collaborator in the abortion a scientist should be completely independent from it, and it is impossible for two reasons: firstly, before the abortion takes place the mother gives her consent for her aborted child to be used; as a consequence, all those involved in the research programme become co-responsible with her decision. You may not see it, but I personally know mothers who had IVF that gave their surplus embryos for research and were proud to make the world a better place because their “sacrificed” children were somehow useful to science. Secondly, for the researcher it is impossible to make it clear to everyone in his field that he does not approve of induced abortion. Last but not least, the most important aspect of research is to contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge by publishing in scientific journals. If my research had been successful, then how could I have carried the burden of promoting the use of cells from the unborn victims of induced abortions?
JS: When did you make your choice official to your team?
TS: That same night, looking for comfort and guidance, I spoke on the phone to our parish priest, Father John Keenan, who confirmed my view and encouraged me, and the decision was officially taken in my heart.
The following day, I told my boss I needed a few minutes to chat together. When I told him, he was surprised human embryos were involved as he had not noticed himself. So we went through the methodology together and confirmed that was the case. He asked me if I wanted him to continue the paperwork for the job or if I preferred to be without a job. I said I could not carry out such research even if it meant becoming jobless from the 1st of Jan. End of story!
JS: Did you ever doubt you made the right choice?
TS: In the days that followed I questioned myself whether I had taken the right choice or not. The answer was straightforward as I pictured myself in two different lives, two different “mes”: the first "me", coming back home from work and playing with my child thinking: “The child that I am using for my every day research work could have been playing right now with his parents, just like my son is”. The second "me", stressed without a job, but with a clean conscience.
|Thomas and wife Eleonora|
TS: Not everyone agreed and I did much talking to get my message through. My parents and parents in law and many friends supported us in this choice and included us in their daily prayers. I was surprised to see how many wrote to us and spoke to us with words of encouragement and pride. At the same time I was surprised to see how many friends thought that choices in life are never black or white but there are always shades of grey, and some insisted that I should have chosen grey for the sake of my family. It is a pity that when we become adults we start believing that white does not exist or it is simply utopia!
JS: Is this the reason why you have been giving talks in schools about your choice and about abortion? Tell me more about that.
TS: Yes, I visited some schools in collaboration with the religious education department.
Once I made this choice that changed the course of my family’s life, I browsed the internet to find out more about abortion. I was shocked when I found out that it is so common in today’s society. The idea that in the western world one out of three to five women in a life-time will choose to abort is beyond imagination. Not even the worst dictator of the 20th century could have thought of something so mean and well organised! And these figures do not include multiple abortions, abortions resulting from IVF and from the morning-after pill. I felt in my heart I had to inform young people scientifically to show the difference between truth and falsehood.
JS: Why do you think so many women choose abortion today?
TS: In my view this is because today’s society de-responsibilizes women and their actions in two ways: firstly, abortion is promoted by separating the connection between sex and reproduction, and by promoting a culture of egoistic relativism where each one is to please his/her own needs and pleasure. Have you ever come across young kids who are surprised to find out they are expecting a baby, as if sex did not involve conception or contraceptive methods were 100% efficient? Secondly, termination of embryonic human life is promoted by not informing women about what is a pregnancy, when life begins, what are the alternatives.
Once mothers feel de-responsibilized, then most of the load falls on all members of society who don’t do anything about it, including me.
Therefore, I felt the urge to make myself useful; informing schoolgirls and boys about the main issues involved in abortion and also research on tissue derived from the “wanted” death of an "unwanted" child. You should have seen the faces of these kids in different schools! They truly had no idea about what abortion was and how it was carried out.
What particularly touched my heart was the expression of shock and surprise on the boy’s faces: probably when they were thinking about sex they thought it just a game; probably no one had ever been so clear with them showing diagrams of the female reproductive system and describing in detail when life started and how it could be ended piece by piece in the abortion procedure; probably they understood that abortion involved them much more than what they had thought before.
Some pupils also came to me and told me their opinion about abortion had completely changed so I told myself “if I have lost my job just to save one life then it was worth it!”
JS: Have you found an ethical job to support your family?
TS: I will tell you the story but please do not laugh!
At the end of 2011 I registered in my university’s roll for job-seekers, because internal staff members have priority over outsiders. As I fitted in very well with a job profile that was needed in my same department, I was verbally offered a three-year contract starting on the 1st January, but believe it or not I had to turn down this offer, as this research also involved the use of tissue obtained from the unborn victims of induced abortion! This research was the result of a collaboration with a group in Australia who collected the foetuses at the gestation time of 10-13 weeks and carried out electrophysiological experiments on their spinal cord, then sent us spinal cord slices to be analysed under the microscope. The person who I was supposed to work with was a very close colleague of mine for seven years; I told him I was saddened by this as I did not realise he carried out such type of research, and he told me: “This is science, someone has to do it!” His answer made me extremely angry!
JS: Why were you surprised by his reaction and point of view?
TS: He and many others in our society consider science a superior entity and motor immobilis guiding mankind’s decisions. He refused to consider that science is only a word, from the Latin scientia meaning knowledge. Knowledge does not possess a conscience. It is the scientist who has a conscience and an ethics that guides his thoughts and decisions. Not every doable thing has to be done. First comes life, and then secondarily comes the improvement to it. It is inadmissible to consider a human life expendable and to use it in research programs for the hypothetical improvement of other people’s lives. I am a scientist and for the first time I felt disgusted by how unwisely my colleagues use the power of knowledge.
Furthermore, a human life at its embryonic stage is too young to be able to choose. Instead of protecting this life in a very special way, society prefers to use it for its own interests. That is why I am still angry!
JS: Please Thomas, give me a happy ending for SPUC readers!
TS: The funniest part is that I was then invited for an interview for a very interesting job in a private foundation in Palermo, Sicily, where I was supposed to carry out research on foetuses aborted in the second trimester due to malformations: what they call in Italy “therapeutic abortion”. Speaking on the phone to one of the members of the interview panel, I said that in my view a therapy should not involve the intentional suppression of the patient as that does not cure the patient. She listened and laughed quietly and agreed and I turned down the invitation to the interview.
I then was unable to apply to a number of other jobs in Britain and abroad as these clearly stated the use of human embryonic stem cells or tissue from aborted embryos. I was shocked by the number of them! Maybe it is due to the financial crisis? Maybe more mothers agree for their children to be used for research? I do not know, but I can tell you that seven years ago neither I nor any of my friends had come across this type of research.
Finally, I have had some “ethically-friendly” job offers in Britain, in my same University and abroad and I chose the best offer, so I will soon leave Great Britain for good with my expecting wife and three years old child!
JS: So finally a happy ending!
TS: More than you can imagine...more than we could imagine!
A simple choice became a review of my life and beliefs, a moment of true unity with my wife and family.
I must admit it was not easy to push our lives to the edge in this time of economical crisis. In 2012 I have already lost £20,000 of salary plus pension benefits I would have been granted if I had chosen differently. It is so easy to take the wrong decision and chose grey when you are short of money! My wife and I are alive because in our families so many women were strong, notwithstanding everything, and they gave life to their children: we could not do less than that to thank their faith and strength.
Looking back my choice looks so right: it brought only blessings to our lives! I had to stop my crazy routine and you have no idea how important it is in our society to have a completely white page in front of you and feel the freedom to fill it out. Keep in mind I could have just spent my time waiting for the five year grant with my old boss, but this choice forced me to open my eyes and look for true happiness in my life as a husband, a father and a scientist.
I thank God for this challenge because I could choose the best for my life, career and children.
Once again I learned that if you choose white, even if this seems irrational at that moment, even if the mountain you have to climb looks so high, you are simply opening your arms to so much more happiness than you could have ever planned.
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