by Martin Lueders
The calls and letters come from every part of the country and
places like Australia, France and Japan. Professors at universities
and research centers, major health-care institutions and community
hospitals, anxious parents facing critical health decisions, religious
communities and former students—they all get the number.
And they get answers. They gain insight from a tall, dark-haired,
gracious woman with the enthusiasm of a teenager, the energy of
a five-year-old and the wisdom of the ancients. Carol Taylor, C.S.F.N.,
R.N., Ph.D., is the director of clinical bioethics at Georgetown
University. She is also a senior research scholar at the Kennedy
Institute of Ethics and assistant professor of nursing at Georgetown
University School of Nursing.
Colleagues refer to her as “a neat lady.” Clients describe her
as a person who can make complex and difficult topics clear and
compelling to people who know little about the new genetic research
revolutionizing medicine and health-care practice.
The initials after her name refer to three of the four or five
roles she plays in her richly demanding life. Carol Taylor is a
religious, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth
whose provincial house is in Philadelphia.
Sister Carol is a nurse, widely experienced in hospital and community
care, particularly among the elderly, and a speaker and consultant
to professional organizations, health-care systems, legislative
bodies and religious congregations.
She is also a scholar and a teacher with advanced degrees from
The Catholic University of America and Georgetown University.
And, oh, yes, she is East Campus chaplain-in-residence to undergraduates
in Loyola Xavier Ryder Hall during her spare evening hours.
Sister Carol’s area of expertise—bioethics—deals with all of the
ethical issues associated with modern health care—from commonly
understood topics like patients’ rights, organ donation, managed
care and parental consent to less-well-understood areas such as
cloning, human experimentation and gene therapy. She deals with
birth-to-death issues from reproductive technologies to refusal
of treatment and brain death.
Through it all, Sister Carol and the staff of the Georgetown Center
work to help bring about an ethical, compassionate and trustworthy
health-care system supported by health policies and legislation
that benefit everyone, at every level of income. To all of it, they
bring the richness of the Catholic moral tradition along with their
expert knowledge and experience.
Expertise Plus Experience
When Sister Carol Taylor sat down for an interview with me last
spring, she was anxious to share why the average Catholic, indeed
the average person of any faith, should be interested in the complex
subjects covered by the term bioethics. With her typical
ability to cut to the heart of things, she said, “Bioethics is important
to everyone because we are all being born, living and dying, and
modern science has given us a million ways to do these things. We
need to say, ‘How are our health professionals, our politicians,
our researchers, shaping those experiences?’
“People are making decisions about whether to have children, dealing
with varying degrees of injury and illness and dying. While some
of this is easy, a lot is fraught with ethical dilemmas.
“In modern society we want to control everything,” she says. With
an easy laugh that comes often, even to so serious a topic, Sister
Carol acknowledges that she claims no exception to this tendency.
But she says, “We need to hear faith-based voices ask: What does
it mean to control in ways that respect our human dignity? These
voices must help people think about these things before they have
to make a difficult decision.”
As an example, she cites the vast knowledge that is becoming available
through genetic testing. People can know, for instance, what specific
diseases they are most likely to contract as they grow older.
New medicines will be able to treat some diseases without side
effects. People will be able to eliminate certain genetic defects
in children before they are born.
Such knowledge raises profound questions. How shall we best treat
a child who is born with a genetic disease or defect? How shall
we share the results of our knowledge with the children who are
affected? Do I really want to know that I am at great risk for breast
cancer or Huntington’s Chorea? What are the risks of knowing? What
are the risks of not knowing? How will my life change as a result
of this genetic information about myself?
“Knowledge is not always an easy thing,” Sister Carol says. “We
used to think that disease was outside us. If we could identify
and possibly eliminate the cause, we could cure or avoid it. Now,
with certain genetic disorders, we know that we are the disease.
Our genes are the source of the disorder. How will this affect us?”
This woman in the short veil who moves as quickly and animatedly
as she speaks wasn’t always interested in the science and philosophy
that are the academic underpinnings for her work. In fact, she wasn’t
interested in those subjects at all.
Parlez Vous Medicine?
Sister Carol’s parents, Mildred and Ray Taylor, and her three
sisters and brother took for granted her decision to enter a religious
order. “I knew I wanted to be a sister in the same way other girls
knew they wanted to get married,” Carol says.
“And I wasn’t very sophisticated about the way I chose my community,”
she adds. “I was very comfortable when I visited the Holy Family
sisters, and since teaching was their primary work, I decided to
Because her sense of joy is almost palpable, it is tempting to
say that she then lived happily ever after. But that would not tell
the whole story. At the end of her postulant year, young Carol Taylor
told her superior that she wanted to teach French. The community,
however, had other plans for this brilliant student. Their college,
Holy Family College, had a new baccalaureate program in nursing
and they wanted a sister on this faculty. They wanted Carol to be
Quickly she ticked off several reasons why she should not study
in a field for which she felt no interest. “No one in my family
had been a nurse and I never even considered that profession,” she
But the needs of her congregation took precedence over her own
early ambition, and she agreed to earn her bachelor of science degree
in nursing—with highest honors. “I loved it from the beginning,”
she says, “and after I finished my master’s degree in medical-surgical
nursing, I loved teaching in the nursing department at Holy Family.”
Gerontology, the study of the health needs of the elderly, soon
became Sister Carol’s special interest. She took her students on
forays into Philadelphia where so many elderly people lived in poverty
and where others lived lives lacking in the most basic supports.
Those trips were the spur that led her to apply to a summer program
at Georgetown, which would deal with some basic questions that occupied
her mind as a result of her work. From there it was just a short
but demanding jump to the field of bioethics, which now dominates
her thoughts, work and prayers.
Practitioner and Scholar
Soon Sister Carol was presented with an unexpected opportunity
to become a research assistant to Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, who was
then head of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and soon to be a founder
of Georgetown’s new Center for Clinical Bioethics. Dr. Pellegrino
was looking for a unique group of new faculty who would be experienced
Catholic practitioners as well as scholars in areas that are central
to the work of the Center.
Dr. Pellegrino offered Sister Carol the position of research scholar.
With the encouragement of Leo O’Donovan, S.J., then Georgetown’s
president, and the support of her community, she accepted it “with
humility and great joy.
“The people here are the greatest,” she says, “and there is excitement
and challenge in every day.” A short walk down the hall of Building
D on the way to lunch at the French Embassy just across Reservoir
Road brought that statement home.
Colleagues seemed to appear every few hundred yards to ask a question,
comment on a project or check an appointment. “We constantly need
to prioritize projects and requests,” she says, “and our staff of
six faculty, six fellows and a large number of faculty associates
and affiliated scholars work on things as diverse as a bioethics
curriculum for high schools to consultations on end-of-life decisionmaking.”
Since her original appointment, Sister Carol has been thinking,
teaching and speaking continually about the moral obligations of
health-care professionals. Over lunch in the bright Embassy dining
room, she discussed two ways of thinking about this issue.
The first takes health care to be a moral obligation of moral
societies and holds that physicians, nurses and all other health-care
professionals have a moral obligation to be trustworthy. Their primary
obligation must be to secure the patient’s health and well-being.
A second point of view considers health care a commodity to be
sold. She obviously believes in the first model, but when she speaks
to groups, she is well aware that many in the audience do not come
from the Catholic faith tradition or—perhaps—from any faith tradition.
So she begins by saying, “Tell me what you believe and why you
believe it.” Then she asks, “What are the consequences that result
from your beliefs?”
Moral and Medical Message
These discussions with students and clients are built around basic
principles that lead to practical decisions. A typical discussion
might ask whether a student believes that children are gifts of
God and nature or products that we produce.
The answer to the question will dictate the type of medical decisions
that will be made in this area. The objective, of course, is to
help medical professionals and others recognize that important moral
questions lie at the heart of these decisions.
“Many people who come to me face dilemmas that are forced upon
them. My role,” she says, “is to help them make a decision, to give
them a way of thinking about it that they didn’t have before. At
the end of the day they need to be at peace with themselves, with
their God and with the people that matter.”
Sister Carol talks about things like the Human Genome Project
and new areas of biotechnology with the ease with which the average
person talks about the weather or his child’s latest report card.
Her interest and knowledge about her field are impressive. But when
she talks about teaching, a great sense of enthusiasm creeps into
her voice, and she readily admits that it is the most satisfying
aspect of her work.
“When I teach third-year medical students, I deal with the competencies
we need to be ethical persons as we encounter everyday moral dilemmas.
My goal is to help them make decisions that advance the health of
patients but honor the integrity of everyone who participates in
“I get good feedback from students,” she says, “but sometimes
it comes long after the course is over. One of the best things happened
just the other day.
“I ran into a young woman I had not seen for a year who told me
that she and her classmates had coined a new term,” Sister Carol
says. “They used it whenever someone raised ethical issues in class
or in late-night discussions. They called them ‘Sister Taylor Moments.’”
It was obvious that her laughter and sense of satisfaction came
not from ego but from the knowledge that these future physicians
were thinking in ways that would humanize their practice of medicine.
“Teaching is part of almost everything I do,” she says, “and I
am never happier than when someone calls from a hospital or medical
department and says, ‘We want to let you know what we’ve done since
your visit. We’re working to change the system.’”
At the same time Sister Carol admits that her greatest frustrations
come when she is dealing with people who “don’t get it,” people
who don’t understand why ethics matters. She mentions other frustrations:
a culture in a hospital or a school that refuses to look at problems
within the health-care system and make changes based on human dignity
and need; institutional managers who look at everything from a view
of compliance, simply wanting to meet a set of regulations; legislators
and other responsible persons who ignore the health-care needs of
our most vulnerable members.
On the Gospel Path
Sister Carol’s faith is the obvious touchstone in her life. “Progress
is good, but are there ways that run counter to our dignity?” she
asks. “We don’t know enough yet to do some things—like gene therapy—safely.
“We have to trust that we are going down the right road,” she
adds. “We’re confident that God is leading us, that God’s spirit
is in the world. We’ve made some big mistakes and we’ll make more,
but we’ve done some wonderful things. That’s why it’s so important
that good people come together to reflect and talk.”
Sister Carol maintains, “We have to create a vision to strive
for and a culture that supports people. In thinking about the gospel
of life, it’s easy to say what we’re opposed to. What we all need
to do is ask ourselves what it means to be a Catholic, to be one
with our brothers and sisters.”
This insightful woman often uses five guiding principles, suggested
by Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, in her work in bioethics.
She first pays attention to everything about a particular situation
or experience. She asks questions, then looks at evidence: What
am I seeing? What am I not seeing? Then she applies reason and common
sense in making a prudent judgment. Finally, she commits everything
to God’s love.
Any doubts that people might have about a possible conflict between
science and religious faith would easily disappear in the presence
of Carol Taylor. She is not afraid to delve into any subject, to
ask any question. She credits herself with a gift of synthesis,
of being able to draw ideas together, of being a bridge.
At the same time, her life has been spent “going where God leads”
which, she says, “is different from stepping forward yourself.”
An anonymous writer has said, “Be a disciple! Care more than others
think necessary. Trust more than others think wise. Serve more than
others think practical. Expect more than others think possible.”
The awesome and often frightening world of biotechnology has a
desperate need for leaders who put discipleship, care, trust, service
and high expectations at the forefront of their work. Carol Taylor
has taken her gifts to that world in service to God, the Church
and all humanity.