1997 : John Paul II is in France for World Youth
Day. It is announced that the Pope has overturned
his carefully planned schedule, and, despite pressures
to the contrary, makes a detour to Châlo-Saint-Mars,
a small town in the Ile-de-France, to pray at the
grave of his friend Professor Lejeune, who had died
Lejeune was born in Etampes in 1926, into a family
that would be ruined by the war of 1939-1945. At
the age of 13, he discovered two authors, Pascal
and Balzac, who would mark him for life. Captivated
by Dr. Benassis, the hero of Balzac's novel The
Country Doctor, he too wanted to become a country
doctor, dedicated to the care of the lowly and the
poor. After the war, he threw himself passionately
into the study of medicine. Soon a second motivation
spurred his work ; he met a young Danish woman,
Birthe, and fell passionately in love with her.
On June 15, 1951, he successfully defended his doctoral
thesis. That same day, his future was decided in
a direction completely different from what he had
planned-one of his teachers, Professor Raymond Turpin,
suggested they collaborate on a major work on "mongolism,"
a condition that affects one out of every six hundred
fifty children. Jerome accepted, and his path was
set. On May 1, 1952, in Odense, Denmark, he married
Birthe Bringsted, now Catholic, with whom he would
have five children. Family life was his priority,
especially during vacations. During his stays abroad,
he wrote to his wife daily.
1954, he became a committee member of the French
Genetics Society, and a researcher at the National
Center for Scientific Research. Since the bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect of nuclear
radiation on human reproduction was the topic of
the day. Turpin directed his team toward this field,
and, in 1957, Jerome was named an "expert on
the effects of atomic radiation on human genetics
" by the United Nations. From then on, he participated
in international conferences, where he was noted
for his frank language in the face of certain delegations'
desire to control the proceedings.
were already the joy of his home when his father's
health began to fail. Jerome was faced with the
fact that it was lung cancer. The agony of his beloved
father made him realize how " unbearable it
is to see loved ones suffer. " From then on,
his view deepened- in each patient's face he recognized
use of new photographic techniques, Jerome discovered,
in tissue from a young " Mongoloid, "
the presence of an extra chromosome on the 21st
' pair (human beings have 23 pairs, or 46 chromosomes).
This was the cause of " mongolism, " a
condition that would from then on be called "
Trisomy 21 " or " Down's Syndrome. "
The Academie de Medicine was informed of the discovery
in March 1959. In November 1962, Jerome was awarded
the Kennedy Prize. In October 1965, he was given
the first chair of fundamental genetics at the University
of Paris. Everything looked hopeful : his discovery
and the publicity it received in the scientific
world, he thought, would encourage research; and
appropriate treatments would be developed to cure
the afflicted and give hope to their parents. The
families of the sick, drawn by Jerome's international
fame and his warmth, came to him in ever greater
numbers. He treated thousands of young patients,
who came to him from all over the world, or with
whom he corresponded. He helped the parents to understand
and accept this trial with a Christian perspective-these
Down's Syndrome children, created in God's image,
were promised an eternal future in which none of
their disabilities remained. He assured them that
their children, despite a serious mental handicap,
would overflow with love and affection.
Jerome noticed, especially in the American medical
establishment, a tendency to recommend abortion
to prevent affected babies from being born. He saw
with horror the risks his discovery had brought
for those with Down's Syndrome. To fight this form
of racism, he saw recourse to experimental reality
as a critical weapon. It demonstrated, in effect,
to impartial minds, that one could not view as strangers
to the human race those who, biologically, belong
to the same species : the embryo is a person.
1967: Professor Lejeune was invited to the seventh
world assembly of the Israeli Medical Association,
in Tel Aviv. The group alternated between work and
excursions; the first being to the Sea of Galilee.
"I entered a small chapel done in poor taste,
" Jerome would relate. "I prostrated myself
and kissed the imaginary footsteps of the One Who
was there. " At the moment, he experienced
a strange feeling: "A son finding a very dearly
beloved Father, a Father finally known, a revered
Master, a very holy Heart discovered, I felt all
this and much more...." Everything melted in
this blaze of love : the world, honors, success,
fear of the opinions of others. There was nothing
but the Lord, and the need to respond to His loving
Jerome rejoined the others, a force took hold of
him. What was its purpose? An incident would put
him on the path. On arriving at Cana, the guide
asked if anyone knew the reason for the international
fame of the city. Jerome took the microphone and
naively recounted the story from the Gospels of
the wedding and the miracle of the water turning
into wine. Silence. Then the guide : " That's
not it at al ! Cana is important because the Helena
Rubinstein cosmetics laboratories are here. "
Everyone burst out laughing. Jerome kept silent
: he felt powerless to avenge the insult Christ
had just received right before his eyes. And then
to Nazareth. Leaving the bus, everyone headed toward
the Basilica of the Annunciation. But some spoke
in loud voices, others indulged in obscene jokes
about the Angel's visit and MARY'S Virginity. Jerome
felt he was being provoked. What should he do ?
He entered and, slowly, made the sign of the cross
and kneeled out of reverence for the mystery of
the Incarnation that had taken place here. Curiously,
his humble and courageous attitude silenced the
mockers. After this public profession of faith,
no one provoked Professor Lejeune again, but he
was excluded from the group.
lost my 'Nobel'"
August 1969, the American Society of Human Genetics
granted Jerome the William Allen Memorial Award,
the highest distinction that can be granted to a
geneticist. On his arrival in San Francisco, where
he was to receive the award, Jerome clearly saw
that the abortion of Down's Syndrome children was
expected to be authorized. The pretext was that
it was cruel and inhuman to allow these poor creatures
to come into the world, doomed to an inferior life,
and posing an unbearable burden on their families.
Jerome trembled. " By my discovery, "
he said to himself, " I've made this shameful
calculation possible ! " After receiving the
prize, he was to give a talk to his colleagues.
Would he have the courage to speak the truth ? A
famous phrase from Saint Augustine came to him:
"Two cities have been formed by two loves :
the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt
of God ; the heavenly by the love of God, even to
the contempt of self." What did his stature
in the scientific world matter : As you did it to
one of the least of these my brethren, you did it
to Me (Mt. 25 :40). He would speak! The physical
nature of man, he explained, is completely contained
in the chromosomal message, from the first moment
of conception. This message makes the new being
a person, not a monkey, not a bear; a man whose
complete physical potentiality is already contained
in the information given to his first cells. Nothing
more will be added to these potentialities, which
will serve his intellectual and spiritual life -
everything is there. He concluded plainly : the
temptation to kill by abortion these small people
afflicted with disease is contrary to moral law;
and genetics confirms this conclusion. This moral
law is not arbitrary. Not a single clap ; but hostile
or annoyed silence from these men, the elite of
his profession. Jerome had collided head-on with
them. He wrote his wife: "Today, I lost my
Nobel prize in medicine" ; but he was at peace.
He confided in his private diary: "Chromosomal
racism is brandished like a flag of freedom. ...
That this negation of medicine, of all the biological
brotherhood that links mankind, is the sole practical
application of the knowledge of Trisomy 21 more
than breaks my heart ... Protecting the abandoned-what
a reactionary, retrograde, fundamentalist, inhuman
the medical world coming up short, could the political
world be convinced ? In June 1970, a member of the
French Parliament, Peyret, drafted a bill that would
allow the prenatal detection and abortion of children
with Down's Syndrome. When parliament went back
into session, the media set the debate in motion.
Jerome was invited to be the guest on a biweekly
television current events show with a large viewership.
His appearance generated a huge volume of mail,
including deeply moving letters from people who
had been severely handicapped from birth, testifying
that their life had not been the nightmare that
others claimed, as well as letters from parents
of children with Down's Syndrome, who spoke of their
son's or daughter's panic at realizing that some
thought that people like them should be killed.
In reality, the campaign to allow the killing of
children with Down's Syndrome was a way of introducing
the right to abortion. People worked to discredit
Lejeune. After trying to contradict him in numerous
conferences, on March 5, 1971, at a large public
meeting in Paris, the opponents, armed with iron
bars, began attacking women, elderly people, and
even the severely handicapped. The police were needed
to put the attackers to flight. As for Jerome, he
received some tomatoes in his face.
the time all Europe was discussing the issue of
abortion. Great Britain followed the lead of the
United States, which had legalized screening for
Down's Syndrome and its "treatment" by
abortion. The media battle in France extended to
the abortion of all unwanted children : "A
baby does not legally become a person until it is
born " ; " a woman has the right to do
what she wants with her body "... Specious
arguments, to which many Catholics were susceptible,
sometimes even to the point of spreading them.
a trip to Virginia in October 1972, Jerome was shown
a protocol to be used during physiological or biochemical
experiments on five-month-old fetuses "removed"
by Caesarean section for this purpose. He wrote
to his wife : " The text says to treat them
like any tissue or organ sample, but specifies that
one must kill them after a short period of time...
I simply said that no text could regulate crime.
" How had his very qualified colleagues come
to this? They had been molded, under the pretext
of scientific rigor, to a point of view in which
God had no place. " Good " is not that
which conforms to the law of God, but that which
is efficient ; " bad " is that which interferes
with material progress. For them, the fetus is no
longer a person, a creature of God destined to see
Him and love Him for all eternity. It can then become
the target of any attack, as long as a majority
: The United States had just recognized the Constitutional
" right to abortion in general. During a talk
on the subject at Royaumont Abbey in Ile-de-France
on March t8, a woman in authority made this statement
: 'We want to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization.
To do so, we must destroy the family ... by attacking
its weakest link, the unborn child. We are for abortion
! " On June 7, a bill decriminalizing abortion
was filed in the French National Assembly. Jerome
noted that false statistics and extreme cases, which
he too was very sensitive to, were being used to
get abortion legalized. Alleged surveys claimed
that half of the medical profession was in favor
; but, at the same time, thanks to the initiative
of Madame Lejeune, the signatures of more than 18,000
French doctors (a majority of the medical profession)
were collected and published, stating their opposition
to abortion, thus showing the fraudulence of the
media campaign. Soon the doctors were joined by
nurses, then judges, law professors, lawyers, and
more than 18,000 mayors and local elected officials.
The bill was derailed. In this battle, in which
the stakes were fidelity to the Ten Commandments
and the saving of human lives, much of the clergy
were silent. Madame Lejeune's parish priest wrote
to her: " The Church cannot appear to be a
pressure group. I think this is why the bishops'
conference is silent right now. " Jerome was
grieved by this. One year later, on December 15,
1974, the "Veil Law" allowing abortion,
was passed by the National Assembly, for a period
of five years.
May 13, 1981, Jerome and his wife were in Rome.
The Holy Father wished to receive them in a private
audience. After the discussion, the Pope spontaneously
invited them to stay for lunch. The same evening,
on their way back to Paris, they learned about the
attack on John Paul 11, a few hours after they had
left him. Jerome's health was shaken by this news.
That autumn, concerned by the international situation,
the Pope decided to send each leader of a nation
possessing nuclear weapons a delegation of members
of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, carrying
a report on the dangers of nuclear war. For the
USSR, he appointed Lejeune and two others. The meeting
took place on December 15, 1981. "We scientists,"
Jerome said plainly, " know that for the first
time, the survival of humanity depends on all nations'
acceptance of moral laws that transcend all systems
and all speculation. " There was no whisper
of this diplomatic mission in the press. The administrative
harassment that, starting with the passage of the
Veil Law, had begun to strangle Jerome, particularly
in the form of repeated tax inspections, became
more severe. His research grants were withdrawn
; he was forced to close his laboratory. American
and English laboratories, indignant at this conduct,
granted him no-cost private loans. This impartial
solidarity allowed him to rebuild a team of researchers
moved by the same motivations.
spite of the derision
August 1988, Professor Lejeune was urged to testify
in Maryville, Tennessee, in a spectacular trial,
in which the survival of thousands of frozen embryos
hung in the balance. In spite of exhaustion, Jerome
wanted to lend support to those who, wherever in
the world, suffered persecution for their respect
for life. Above all, he wanted to help his Catholic
colleagues follow the Church's teaching, despite
the world's derision. In August 1989, the King of
Belgium, Baudouin I, in a difficult situation with
respect to his parliament, which was about to legalize
abortion, asked for his counsel. At the end of the
conversation, the king suggested to him : "
Professor, would it bother you if we prayed together
for a moment ? " We know the exemplary stance
the king later took in this affair, to the point
of renouncing his throne rather than offend God.
1991, Jerome embarked on "reflections on professional
ethics in medicine, " in seven points : '1.
'Christians, be not afraid !' It is you who possess
the truth ; not that you invented it, but you are
the vehicle for it. To all doctors you must repeat:
you must conquer the illness, not attack the patient.
2. Man is made in the image of God. For this reason
alone he must be respected.... 3. " Abortion
and infanticide are unspeakable crimes" (Vatican
II, Gaudium et Spes, 5x ). 4. Objective morality
exists; it is clear, and it is universal, because
it is Catholic. 5. The child is not disposable and
marriage is indissoluble. 6. You shall honor your
father and mother: Uniparental reproduction by means
of cloning or homosexuality is not possible. 7.
The human genome, the genetic capital of our race,
is not disposable. " Note this courageous phrase:
" In so-called pluralistic societies, they
shove it down our throats : `You Christians don't
have the right to impose your morality on others!'
Well ! I tell you, not only do you have the right
to try to incorporate your morality in the law,
but it's your democratic duty!"
August 5, 1993, the Holy Father approved the creation
of the Pontifical Academy for Medicine, dedicated
to protecting life. Professor Lejeune would be its
president. There was in fact between him and the
Pope a meeting of the minds. In their eyes, abortion
was the primary threat to peace. If doctors begin
to kill, why would governments hesitate to do so
? Jerome was stunned by this nomination. He gave
himself several days to think about it, because
he felt a great fatigue. Around All Saints' Day,
he was examined by his friend Professor Lucien Israel
who, with a drawn face, showed him the x-rays of
his lungs : they indicated an already advanced cancer.
Jerome accepted the situation with courage and submission
to the Divine Will. He had to break the news to
Birthe and his children: "You shouldn't worry
until Easter-I will live at least till then "
; suddenly, he added, "And at Easter, only
wonderful things can happen!" The chemotherapy
sessions started at the beginning of December-they
were very taxing, as he expected them to be. Nevertheless,
he continued to receive phone calls, to comfort
the families of patients. Having informed the Holy
Father of his state of health and turning down the
presidency of the Pontifical Academy for Life-as
he had the presidency of France's Academy of Moral
and Political Sciences, which had just been offered
to him-he was told that the Holy Father refused
to appoint another president. Jerome smiled. "I
will die in action. " To the end, he endeavored
to write the Academy's bylaws. He felt his weakness,
but his spirit of faith showed him the fruitfulness
of the setbacks themselves. He never complained
; his suffering, united with love to Christ's Passion,
could put the world back on its true axis !
of Holy Week, March 30, 1994, as he lay in a delirium,
in the grips of a fever of over 40 degrees Celsius
(104 degrees Fahrenheit), he was placed in hospice
care. The next day, at dawn, he regained consciousness.
On Good Friday, he confided to a priest who was
giving him last rites : "I have never betrayed
my faith. " This is all that counts before
God... He told his children who were asking him
what he wished to bequeath to his little patients
: " I don't have much, you know... So, I have
given them my life. And my life is all that I had.
" Then, moved to tears, he murmured, "O
my God! I was supposed to have cured them, and I
am leaving without having found ... What will happen
to them ? " Then, radiant with joy, he spoke
to his loved ones: "My children, if I can leave
you a message, this is the most important of all
: we are in the hands of God. I have experienced
this a number of times. " The next day, Holy
Saturday, passed quietly: Jerome was calm. However,
at the end of the afternoon, his respiratory problems
returned, worse than before. Suddenly authoritative,
he ordered his wife and other loved ones to go home.
He did not want them present at his agony. Sunday
morning, around seven o'clock, he said with difficulty
to a colleague he barely knew, who had been holding
his hand for much of the night : " You see...
I've done well... " and he breathed his last.
Outside, the first ringing of the church bells could
be heard-it was the day of the Resurrection, the
day of the Life that does not end. For " Christ
is eternal life "(l Jn. 5 :20) !
next day, Pope John Paul II wrote these words about
Jerome Lejeune : "We find ourselves today faced
with the death of a great Christian of the twentieth
century, a man for whom the defense of life had
become an apostolate. It is clear that, in the situation
of the world today, this form of apostolate among
the laity is particularly necessary... "