Dr. Jerome Lejeune and Down Syndrome Awareness Month
By Mary Kizior
October is both Down Syndrome Awareness Month and Respect Life Month. As we edge closer to the beginning of this month, it’s only fitting that we reflect upon the work of one of the most influential men in the field of genetics—and one who respected all human beings.
In 1959, Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, a French geneticist and physician, discovered that the physical and intellectual characteristics of people with Down syndrome were caused by an extra chromosome on chromosome 21.
Before Dr. Lejeune’s discovery, people thought Down syndrome and other genetic disorders were caused by immoral behavior or disease. Children with Down syndrome were shunned and hidden away.
Motivated by his desire to help his patients with Down syndrome and their families, Dr. Lejeune pursued genetic research in hopes of mitigating the symptoms of the condition so that his patients could live fairly normal lives.
By the 1960s, Dr. Lejeune was asked to give presentations all over the world about his discovery and subsequent work in genetics. He became the UN expert in genetics and won numerous awards and recognition. For his discovery, Dr. Lejeune is considered the father of modern genetics.
Faith or fame
In 1969, Lejeune received the William Allan Memorial Award from the American Society of Human Genetics for his work in genetics. At the award ceremony, he agonized over what to say in his speech. This was his moment to instruct his fellow scientists about the dignity of each human person and about the dangers of genetic testing which arose in the years following his discovery.
His fellow doctors started to use prenatal diagnosis of genetic conditions to recommend abortion to expectant mothers whose preborn children had Down syndrome or other genetic conditions. His friends urged him to speak only about the science behind his discoveries which had shocked the scientific world.
But Dr. Lejeune had other plans. Instead, he spoke to the scientific community about when a human being’s life begins—that a human person is present at the very first moment of his creation by God.
After that speech, Dr. Lejeune’s career as a prominent geneticist crumbled. Because of his pro-life beliefs, Dr. Lejeune was ostracized from the scientific community. Offers to speak and teach stopped coming.
Eventually the media stopped asking him to appear as a genetics expert on television and radio because he would only take it as an opportunity to speak in the defense of human embryos as human persons.
His colleagues refused to nominate him for the Nobel Prize, not because his work was sub-par, but because they felt he would use the prize as a political platform.
Pro-life with no regrets
As France moved down the path to legalizing abortion, Dr. Lejeune remained one of the strongest voices in the defense of preborn babies. He knew that the legalization of abortion was inevitable—that he would lose his fight to save innocent preborn babies from destruction—but that did not stop him from loudly speaking on their behalf in front of lawmakers, judges, and television audiences.
As we see from the life of Dr. Lejeune, defending preborn human beings has costs. You may lose some friends. You may not experience earthly recognition for your efforts. Your enemies may hate you and persecute you. But despite all these trials, God will reward you.
As Jesus tells his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12 NABRE).
Toward the end of his life, the good doctor finally received recognition for his work. In 1994, Saint John Paul II appointed Dr. Lejeune as the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, an appointment that Lejeune considered the most important of his life. Dr. Lejeune died soon after, on April 3, 1994.
The legacy continues
His one regret at the end of his life was that he felt he was abandoning his patients without an advocate to take his place. To carry on the doctor’s work, Dr. Lejeune’s family started the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation in 1996 which helps raise funds and awareness for ethical Down syndrome research and care.
Like Dr. Lejeune, we must have courage to persevere. Preaching the gospel of life requires us to give everything we have in God’s service. That’s why living the gospel of life is so radical and takes so much courage.
If we want to end abortion and violence against preborn children in our nation, we have to do more than just be nominally pro-life.
Many times students, especially teenagers, are afraid to talk about abortion in front of their friends. As teachers and parents, we need to show them that living the culture of life has far more rewards than giving silent assent to the culture of death or cowering in fear.
Whatever we do for these preborn children—the weakest members of our human family—we do for Christ the King.
Teach your students and children about Dr. Jerome Lejeune with CLSP’s lesson entitled Dr. Jerome Lejeune and Trisomy 21. There’s no better time to begin to learn about the respect and dignity of every human being.
Mary Kizior is the product development and marketing manager for the Culture of Life Studies Program. Her work has appeared on LifeSiteNews.com, Christ Is Our Hope magazine, Celebrate Life Magazine, Defend Life magazine, the Peanut Butter and Grace blog, and other blogs.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at cultureoflifestudies.com/blog/are-you-afraid-to-speak-against-abortion-a-lesson-from-dr-jerome-lejeune.