Jerome Lejeune: A Sign of Contradiction

During World Youth Day in Paris last summer, Pope John Paul II traveled to a nearby small town to pray at the grave of an old friend and fellow humanitarian, Professor Jerome Lejeune. Extraordinarily, the news of his intended visit drew an unprecedented public rebuke of the Holy Father from France’s ruling Socialist Party, who claimed that the pope, merely by visiting the grave, was meddling in the internal French political debate over life issues.

Who was Jerome Lejeune, that even his memory could engender this kind of response? Lejeune was a medical doctor, a Ph.D. in biology, a professor of medicine, and chairman of fundamental genetics at the University of Paris. Honored by scientific communities around the globe, he was a fellow of the Pontifical Academy of Science of Rome and the prestigious Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques d’Institut de France. As the geneticist who discovered the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome, he received the William Allen Memorial Award, the world’s highest award in genetics. But in the eyes and heart of Dr. Lejeune, his highest honor was to lay the groundwork for the Pontifical Academy of Life and to be named its first president by Pope John Paul II. It would be hard to imagine two more ardent, consistent, and effective opponents of abortion than these two men, each in his own sphere of influence.

Deep faith in God as well as profound scientific knowledge allowed Lejeune to become one of the world’s most important witnesses to the humanity of the preborn child. This kind and gentle man had an endearing charm and charisma, and a wonderful way of expressing difficult scientific matters in simple language and images. He reduced seemingly complex matters to the elegantly simple, often with humorous anecdotes.

Lejeune opposed establishment of the first test-tube baby clinic in America as unjustified experimentation on embryonic human beings. He traveled endlessly to appear as an expert witness to the humanity of the preborn child in landmark legal cases, serving as the key witness in an important Tennessee case in 1989 that he later recounted in The Concentration Can. It involved a custody battle over seven embryonic human beings created in vitro and preserved in a canister of liquid nitrogen. The mother and father originally hoped that the preserved embryos would be transferred to the mother’s womb at some future date. However, legal action ensued when the mother, Mary Sue Davis, wanted to receive the embryos and continue the process even after the father, Junior L. Davis, filed for divorce and petitioned the court to enjoin her from receiving the embryos. He objected to the possibility of being made a father (in the conventional sense) against his will.

Informed about the case just as it was going to trial, Lejeune immediately offered his services to Mrs. Davis in order to provide the court with scientific evidence as to the humanity of the embryos under cryopreservation. Though only microscopically observable, he demonstrated to the court that each frozen embryo had a unique and individual genetic identity and was, in fact, a tiny human being. Like every other human being, held Lejeune, these too should be protected as such by law and not considered property.

Presiding Judge W. Dale Young ruled for life, awarding temporary custody to the mother, and crediting the “compelling” testimony of French geneticist Jerome Lejeune. Tragically, the decision was reversed in the appellate courts; the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Mrs. Davis.

Thirty-one years earlier, in 1958, Lejeune elaborated for the first time his theory of the extra chromosome that causes Down’s. Most of his remaining thirty-six years were spent in full-time research to discover cures for what he termed “the terrible affliction which denies some children their power of thinking.” His particular devotion was caring for the mentally handicapped in the Hospital des Enfants Malades in Paris, where he examined about 2,000 children annually. He also provided the world’s largest consultation and follow-up service for about 30,000 children around the globe who suffer from mental retardation resulting from what he called “chromosomal mistake.”

Upon his death in 1994, Pope John Paul II eulogized Lejeune to the world from Vatican City as a “sign of contradiction.” Jerome Lejeune spent his life defending life, according to the pope, “regardless of the pressures exerted by a permissive society or the ostracism to which he was subjected.” The Holy Father’s eulogy was also delivered in his behalf during the Mass of the Resurrection for Lejeune in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Among those who came to express their love, respect, and esteem for Dr. Lejeune were many of his handicapped patients.

During his lifetime, Lejeune stressed the importance of increasing research to find cures for mental defects. “The question before society,” he would often say, “is whether to kill or to heal.” If the trend continues to kill impaired in utero babies by abortion, or chillingly, “even after birth,” the thrust for research to find the cures will be diminished because there will be fewer people to heal. Thus, he said, “It is the responsibility of pro-life people to give that drive to research.”

Following his lead, immediately after his death, his family and closest friends established Foundation Jerome Lejeune. It continues in active operation today raising funds for research, as Professor Lejeune put it, “… to alleviate the difficulties of those children, and so to speak, to make right again the destiny which has been twisted by misfortune.” The foundation is located at 31, rue Galande, 75005 Paris, France.

It was Lejeune’s strong commitment to life that drew him into a close relationship with Pope John Paul II from the early days of his pontificate. In the intervening years before Lejeune’s death four years ago, if a single defining theme were to be chosen that would best characterize those two extraordinary men, it would have to be their common commitment to the defense of every human life, however small, however impaired.


  • Charles Dean

    At the time this article was published, Charles Dean lived in North Carolina.

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