A Saint for the Cause of Life: Jerome Lejeune

Lejeune watched with an almost uncomprehending horror in the 1960s and 70s as the majority of his colleagues accepted abortion.

A Saint for the Cause of Life Jerome Lejeune Lejeune Foundation

Lejeune Foundation

A uniquely eloquent advocate for the sanctity of the human person in our lifetime was the pediatrician and geneticist Dr. Jerome Lejeune (1926-1994). We can’t do full justice here to his story, which is best told in the tender memoir, Life is a Blessing, by his daughter Clara Lejeune-Gaymard.  In it, Lejeune-Gaymard recounts her father’s ground-breaking medical discoveries, which were driven by his profound respect for the specialness and sanctity of every human life — however young, sick, or vulnerable.  Lejeune’s most important breakthrough was to uncover the genetic basis for Down’s Syndrome in the presence of an extra chromosome in the DNA of a child born with that condition.  This discovery by itself helped transform the lives of patients and their families, who had for decades lived under a false moral stigma — since it was widely believed that Down’s Syndrome in a child was the side-effect of syphilis in the mother, which was associated in the popular mind with prostitution.  By offering rock-solid proof of a biological cause for Down’s Syndrome, Lejeune helped the parents of such children move in from out of the shadows. Lejeune went on to uncover the genetic basis for another devastating birth defect, Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, and made advances in understanding the causes of Fragile-X Syndrome. He also anticipated the rest of medical science by decades in his insistence on the importance of folic acid in reducing the risk of many birth defects.

Lejeune’s discoveries won him early academic acclaim.  In 1962, he was honored by President John F. Kennedy with the first Kennedy Prize. Lejeune was appointed the first Professor of Fundamental Genetics at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris in 1964, and in 1969 he received the most prestigious honor in his field from the American Society of Human Genetics, the William Allen Award.

Unlike many scientists of his era, Lejeune saw his work as deeply rooted in his relationship with patients and their families.  He referred to his Down’s Syndrome clients as “my little ones,” and worked with their families to help them find educational and work opportunities — consistently taking time away from his research (and turning down opportunities to vastly increase his income) to see patients at his low-cost private clinic. Lejeune’s ongoing research for the next thirty years was devoted to understanding the causes of genetic disorders and searching for means to treat these conditions in utero, as well as ways to mitigate the effects of the disorder in children and adults — to gain for each patient the best and richest life possible.  Lejeune took with religious seriousness the medical vocation and the ethic that has undergirded it since Hippocrates: to do no harm, to serve the cause of life, and put the interests of the individual patient first.  (Indeed, in the traditional Hippocratic Oath, new physicians specifically promised not to take part in abortions; in 1964, Dr. Louis Lasagna of Tufts University School of Medicine composed a watered-down version that specifically allowed for abortion—a rewrite that is used at most secular medical schools today.)

Lejeune watched with an almost uncomprehending horror in the 1960s and 70s as the majority of his colleagues rejected key elements of this heritage, and embraced a utilitarian hedonist creed that accepted abortion, and allowed Lejeune’s “little ones” to be seen not as patients deserving treatment, but as problems that should be prevented.

In a bitter irony, the research Lejeune pioneered also led to the development of prenatal screening tests, now used by doctors to detect Down’s Syndrome in unborn babies, most of whom are routinely aborted.  Lejeune denounced this abuse of science as “chromosomal racism.”  The first laws in France permitting abortion were written specifically to target “defective” fetuses, and Lejeune burned most of his professional and academic bridges when he became one of the few prominent scientists in France to lobby against these laws.  In 1981, Lejeune would testify before a U.S. Senate judiciary subcommittee on the “question” of when human life begins.  After recounting the overwhelming biological evidence that the answer is simply, conception, Lejeune