Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, Hero of the Pro-Life Movement

(photo: Photo credit: Fondation Jérôme Lejeune)

Dr. Jérôme Lejeune was a French physician and genetics researcher who courageously defended the unborn lives of people with Down Syndrome.

He found the third little mark on the 21st chromosome, known as trisomy 21, in his Paris laboratory in 1959. He was hoping to find a cure for Down Syndrome. Instead his discovery led to a medical holocaust, with national health systems paying enormous sums of money to track down and eliminate these children before they could be born. The tragic fact that his discovery was used for the opposite purpose for which it was intended propelled him to the forefront of the beginning of the pro-life movement.

A new movie, Jérôme Lejeune: To the Least of These My Brothers and Sisters (a reference to Christ’s words, "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren…") highlights the courageous defense of life that was at the center of Dr. Lejeune's scientific work. The documentary film was created for the 20th anniversary of Lejeune's death. In it we see that for Lejeune, truth was far more important than prestige; the sanctity of life more compelling than that the applause of the Nobel Prize folks.

The film shows how Pope Paul VI created the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1974. This gave Professor Lejeune the chance to work with the international scientific world on questions of science and ethics. His meeting with Cardinal Wojtyla in Poland in 1975 began a strong friendship. On a visit to France in 1997 Pope St. John Paul II insisted on praying before the tomb of Jérôme Lejeune, in the company of his wife and children and grandchildren.

The documentary includes interviews with former colleagues, families, current medical researchers, and others aware of Jérôme Lejeune's enormous contributions to both the medicine and the defense of the dignity of human life.

Lejeune traveled worldwide, advocating for the humanity of the human person from his or her earliest moments, at a time when more and more countries moving in the direction of “perfect people only.” Dr. LeJeune was Invited to America to receive the highest distinction in genetics for his work, the William Allen Memorial Award. He saw the direction in which genetics was headed and he knew what was expected of him at this event.

Courageously, he decided to use the opportunity to speak out in defence of “his patients”—the children and their parents who were seeking him from all over the world to seek his advice and help with their family member who had Down Syndrome. Many of his colleagues urged him to address the scientific questions only, and leave the moral questions alone. But Lejeune knew the cost involved full well. For one thing, it would mean losing the Nobel Prize. He knew this when he spoke: “For thousands of years, medicine has striven to fight for life and health against disease and death. Any reversal of this order would entirely change medicine itself.” His meteoric rise was curtailed by his defense of the dignity of the unborn child.

Later that night he wrote to his wife, “Today I lost my Nobel Prize.” Lejeune was ostracized by the scientific, medical and political elite in France. His research funds were withdrawn. While in the 1960s doctors had been proud to belong to the "Lejeune team," in the 1970s it was social suicide. During the French pro-abortion campaign in 1975 "Death to Lejeune" was scrawled on the walls of the Sorbonne. His own children witnessed the attacks against their father.

In 1989, a trial involving a young divorced couple battling over custody of their seven frozen embryos took place. The mother wanted to have custody so she could have the embryos implanted in her womb, hoping to give birth to some or all of them. Her alternate plan was to give the embryos to other childless women. The father wanted custody for the sole purpose of destroying them eventually in their frozen state. “The judgment of Solomon all over again!” said Lejeune when the lawyers for the mother contacted him, asking him to give evidence. The descriptions of the earliest stages of unborn life apparently convinced the judge. Judge W. Dale Young awarded custody of the embryos to the mother: “Human life is not property, and human life begins at conception… Mr and Mrs Davis have produced human beings, in vitro, to be known as their child or children.” Tragically, this decision was later overturned by a higher court. There have been dozens of such cases since then.

As our culture demanded more and more “perfect” people, Lejeune honored the life of those born with disabilities and differences. He revealed the intrinsic value of children born with Down Syndrome to their parents and families. He helped remove any shame the parents of these babies felt when their children were born, with all sorts of explanations offered including the fault of the parents, and reminded them of the gift of life from God.

In 1989, the King of Belgium, King Baudouin, invited Professor Lejeune to visit as a representative of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Belgian Parliament was debating the legalization of abortion. The king, a Catholic, refused to sign for it. At the end of their meeting, the king asked Professor Lejeune, "Would you mind if we pray together?" These two men of remarkable moral strength are now both candidates for beatification by the Catholic Church.

Today the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation continues his work since his death in 1994. His wife, Madame Birthe Lejeune, is still a very active member of the foundation, as are their children and their spouses. The DVD of To the Least of These is available at www.LejeuneUSA.org.

“If you say to a geneticist: 'Examine the chromosomes of these children, and if they are abnormal, do away with them,' you ask us to carry out the role of Pontius Pilate.” —Dr. Jérôme Lejeune