A Courageous Defender of Life

I first met Dr. Jérôme Lejeune at a pro-life conference in Montreal. Just minutes before his scheduled presentation to a large and expectant audience, we, along with several other participants, were tending to our ablutions in the men’s lavatory. Since it is not practical to wash one’s hands while holding a portfolio of notes, we naturally set them aside until our momentary task was completed. When we were ready to leave, however, we inadvertently picked up the wrong ones. Dr. Lejeune was the first to realize the mishap and, observing a man leaving the washroom with a folder that looked suspiciously like his own, said, without the lightest trace of anxiety in his voice: “That gentleman is leaving with my notes.” I quickly made the embarrassing discovery that it was I who had Lejeune’s notes (and he, mine). While exchanging folders I complimented him on how, even in the face of a potentially embarrassing moment, he remained the picture of calmness and the essence of a gentleman.

If the expression “a gentleman and a scholar,” ever had a perfect witness, it was Jèrôme Lejeune. He was a world-renowned geneticist who discovered the genetic origin of Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21). This discovery was the first time that a defect in intellectual development was shown to be traced to a chromosomal abnormality. It was a major breakthrough and opened the door to the discoveries of monosomy 9, trisomy 13, and other links between a genetic disorder and a physiological aberration. Perhaps cures could be on the horizon. Lejeune made the comment in the medical journal, Lancet, that curing children of Down Syndrome may not be far away, “if only the disease is attacked, not the babies.”

But he was far more than a brilliant researcher. “Our intelligence,” he once stated, “is not an abstract machine; it is also incarnate, and the heart is as important as the faculty of reason, or more precisely, reason is nothing without the heart.” His gentlemanly affection extended to all human beings, including the Down Syndrome community and frozen embryos. He was pro-life, thoroughly, totally, and consistently.

He was invited to be an expert witness in a court case involving the disposition of seven frozen embryos. A dispute arose in a divorce court in which the wife wanted her tiny offspring to live while the husband wanted them to be destroyed. Lejeune, at his own expense, flew to the small town in Tennessee to provide scientific testimony in behalf of the humanity of the frozen embryos. The town was Maryville, the mother’s name was Mary, and her lawyer’s name was Christenberry, a striking coincidence that was not lost on Dr. Lejeune. He hastened to assist what he referred to as the “Seven Hopes of Mary”. “If the judgment of Solomon which is pronounced only twice every three thousand years, occurs during your lifetime,” he remarked, “it’s worth a detour.” A full account of the Maryville trial is contained in Lejeune’s book, The Concentration Can.

Lejeune’s scientific testimony proved successful. Judge Dale Young rendered his decision which recognized that the embryos were not the property of anyone since they are members of the human family. He concluded that “The person who should have custody of the children is the person who intends to preserve the life of the children.” His decision was, indeed, Solomonic.

The good doctor’s affirmation of the right to live, while honored by many, was strongly denounced by others. At the United Nations, a debate took place in which most of those present approved abortion. The usual rationalizations were offered: the prevention of deformed infants, the mortality rate from clandestine abortions, sparing women from psychological suffering, and so on. Lejeune, alone in his camp, raised a politically incorrect protest, “Here we have an institute of health that is turning into an institute of death.” That evening he wrote to his wife, confiding in her that “This afternoon I lost my Nobel Prize.”

The calumny that was visited upon Lejeune extended to his five children. Clara Lejeune, Jérôme’s daughter, testifies to this in her biography of her father, Life is a Blessing. She recalls the frightful graffiti on the outside walls of the medical school: “Tremble, Lejeune! The MLAC [a revolutionary student movement] is watching. Lejeune is an assassin. Kill Lejeune! Or else: Lejeune and his little monsters must die”. Such words, writes Clara, “brought our childhood very quickly to an end. These are things that cannot be forgotten even if, during adolescence, there is a sort of play-acting in these street wars, the seriousness of which is not realized.”

Jérôme Lejeune passed away on Easter Sunday, 1994, at the all too young age of 67, thirty-three days after he had been appointed President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. As his daughter recounts, he had been inspired by the final line of Brahms German Requiem, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, for their works follow them.” His close friend, Pope John Paul II, upon hearing of “the death of our brother Jérôme,” had these words to say: “May the truth about life be also a source of spiritual strength for the family of the deceased, for the Church in France, and for all of us, to whom Professor Lejeune has left the truly brilliant witness of his life as a man and as a Christian.”

What did it matter that a journalist writing for the weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, labelled Lejeune as “an enemy of the worst kind”? The truth and accomplishments of Lejeune will live on. Shortly after his passing, a petition appeared in Le Monde signed by three thousand physicians demanding recognition for the embryo as a member of the human species, and not to be exploited for manipulations of any kind.

During his visit to Paris for world Youth Day, John Paul II visited the grave of Jérôme Jean Louis Marie Lejeune. The Catholic Church has named Lejeune “Servant of God,” and the Abbey of Saint Wandrille in France has inaugurated his cause for sainthood.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Articles by Don: