New Documentary Chronicles Life of Venerable Jerome Lejeune, Heroic Down Syndrome Advocate

The film details how Lejeune's ideas about the cause of Down syndrome “went from hypothesis to scientific discovery.”

Dr. Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994).
Dr. Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994). (photo: Wikimedia / Public domain)

A documentary produced by a French filmmaker about Venerable Jerome Lejeune, a Catholic doctor and scientist who left a legacy of caring for people with Down syndrome, is set to air this January on EWTN

Lejeune is perhaps best known for discovering the genetic cause of Trisomy 13, or Down syndrome, in 1959, a discovery that made him famous and world-renowned. 

Once offensively termed “Mongolism,” Down syndrome was little-understood for centuries, and those with it, and their parents, were often marginalized and stigmatized well into the 19th and 20th centuries. The film features numerous parents speaking about the challenges and stigmatization they faced after their child was found to have Down syndrome, with one mother even saying that the hospital urged her to abandon her child.

Venerable Lejeune, a Frenchman and devout Catholic, saw himself as a “country doctor,” and cared deeply for his patients. A colleague of Lejeune's had long suspected that the cause of Down syndrome might be linked to chromosomes and asked Lejeune to come and work with children with Down syndrome. 

According to colleagues and friends interviewed in the documentary, Venerable Lejeune had an “exceptional” eye for chromosomes and invented a new microscope to aid in their examination.  

The film details how Lejeune's ideas about the cause of Down syndrome “went from hypothesis to scientific discovery.” He eventually discovered an extra chromosome in the 21st pair. After publishing his findings, Lejeune was excited about what he saw as many possibilities for therapy and care. 

He became widely known and sought after for his attentive, loving care for patients with Down syndrome. Many mothers testified to the fact that once Lejeune told them about the cause of their child's illness, they were more able to see them as exactly that: their child. 

The French doctor was appointed an expert for the United Nations at the tender age of 35. Later, Venerable Lejeune delivered a momentous speech in October 1969 while accepting a prestigious award in the United States.

Lejeune spoke passionately about his pro-life beliefs, asserting that human beings in the womb deserved protection. At the time, abortion was already decriminalized in several U.S. states in cases where genetic anomalies had been detected. 

It was a very polarizing speech, one that elicited boos from some audience members, even though it contained no religious arguments. Venerable Lejeune knew, in that moment, that he would never earn the Nobel Prize for his scientific work. 

After he made his pro-life views known, violent protests and attacks against Lejeune and his views took place in France, amid a contentious national abortion debate. He was largely ostracized in the scientific community, but he gained recognition in the Catholic world thanks in large part to his friendship with Pope St. John Paul II, who in 1994 appointed Lejeune to lead the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

Interviewees in the documentary recalled a “sharing of both faith and intelligence” between Lejeune and the pope, with Pope John Paul II apparently describing Lejeune as one of the most intelligent people he had ever met. 

Other highlights of Lejeune’s life include the occasion when he served as a star expert witness in a legal case in the United States, arguing that embryos have a right to life — the first time in legal history that such an argument had been made.

Thanks in part to Venerable Lejeune’s tireless research and advocacy, life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has leaped from 10 to 60 years, the documentary reports — even though a diagnosis of Down syndrome still leads to abortion in over 90% of cases in Lejeune’s native France. 

The Lejeune Foundation, set up after Lejeune died at age 67 in 1994, continues to research for a cure. Keenan Kampa, a classical ballerina from Virginia who advocates for the Lejeune Foundation, is featured in the documentary and describes the “happy, joyful, magnetic personalities” that she has encountered among her friends with Down syndrome. 

Venerable Jerome Lejeune: To the Least of These My Brothers and Sisters is set to air on EWTN on Jan. 21, 2022 at 8 p.m. ET.