SERVANT of GOD JEROME LOUIS MARIE LEJEUNE, born in 1926, was a French pediatrician and geneticist, best known for discovering the link of diseases to chromosome abnormalities and for his subsequent opposition to prenatal diagnosis and abortion.
In 1958, working from the discovery that humans have 46 chromosomes, found the extra chromosome on the 21st pair that causes what was then called “mongolism” and is now called Down syndrome. Until Dr. Lejeune’s discovery, the syndrome had wrongly been attributed to maternal syphilis.
Although his discoveries paved the way for new therapeutic research into how changes in gene copy number could cause disease, they also led to the development of prenatal diagnosis of chromosome abnormalities and thence to abortions of affected pregnancies. This was very distressing to Dr. Lejeune, a devout Catholic, and led him to begin his fight for the pro-life cause.
He opposed the authorization in 1967 for women to use contraception as well as the Peyret laws in 1970 to render legal the interruption of pregnancy in case of fetal abnormalities.
After receiving the Allan prize, Dr. Lejeune gave a talk to his colleagues which concluded by explicitly questioning the morality of abortion, an unpopular viewpoint in the profession. In a letter to his wife, he wrote "today, I lost my Nobel prize in Medicine".
As a devout Catholic and father of five, Dr. Lejeune’s discovery led him to think in terms of improving the lives of those with trisomy 21. Thousands of families corresponded with him and came from all over the world to seek his counsel. Dr. Lejeune offered them a different perspective than the world’s, encouraging them to see that their children were created in God’s image and made for eternity, like all of us. He assured them their children possessed special gifts of love and affection.
Dr. Lejeune called them “these dear little ones,” and his love for them was authentic. So, he was horrified by the realization that, in this eugenic era, his discovery of the extra chromosome made them targets. He feared it was only a matter of time before tests made prenatal diagnosis possible, resulting in many parents choosing to abort their children.
He was compassionate and gave hope to families with children affected by Down syndrome. People called him at any hour—day or night—for his counsel. He would drop everything to spend hours with them.
In 1975, after one of his public appearances in
the beginning of life, Dr. Lejeune met Dr. Wanda
Poltawska, director of the Catholic Institute for the Family
Later that year, Dr. Poltawska contacted Dr. Lejeune twice, asking him to speak
at conferences on the beginning of life that she was organizing with one of her
close friends, Monsignor Karol Wojtyla,
then Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow. On 16
October 1978 Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II.
In 1994, the Holy Father created the
appointing Dr. Lejeune as its first president. By then suffering from cancer,
he tried to decline, but when the pope insisted, he simply replied, “I will die
in action.” He immediately got to work drafting the bylaws of the new academy. Pontifical
He served as President of the Academy for only a few weeks before his death on Easter Sunday 1994. As he was dying, he mourned, “I was the doctor who was supposed to cure them and, as I leave, I feel I am abandoning them.” His wife, Birthe, has written, “All of the awards he received for his discoveries were meaningless to him, because he had not been able to accomplish that one goal.
A few years later, during his visit to
for World Youth Day 1997, John Paul II visited
Dr. Lejeune’s grave in Châlo-Saint-Mars. His
cause for sainthood is being postulated by the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Wandrille in Paris Normandy, . France
The personal life and professional character of Dr. Jérôme Lejeune were a seamless garment of pro-life philosophy and action. This is what comes through in Life Is a Blessing: A Biography of Jérôme Lejeune, lovingly written by his daughter Clara Lejeune-Gaymard.