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Witnessing to the Sanctity of Human Life: The Example of Jerome Lejeune, M.D.

lejeune.jpegThe August, 2011 issue of Catholic Medical Quarterly, the journal of the Catholic Medical Association of the United Kingdom, begins with an article “Jerome Lejeune: A Doctor for All Seasons.” His example in witnessing to the sanctity of human life from its inception until death was remarkable. Reflecting on it can be of value to all in the pro-life movement, particularly if some basic principles of medical ethics that he proposed are not only kept in mind but carried out in practice. The CMQ’s brief article is well done; hence this piece will basically be a summary of it, implemented by a brief description of Lejeune’s role in a famous court case in Tennessee toward the end of the 1980’s.

In 1959 Lejeune discovered the cause of Down’s Syndrome. Regarding the personhood of such children the CMQ article related the story of an American physician who told Lejeune that his father was a Jewish physician in Braunau, Austria. One day only two babies were born at the local hospital. The parents of the healthy boy were proud and happy. The other baby was a girl afflicted with Down’s Syndrome and her parents were very distraught about her birth. The physician ended the story by saying that the girl grew up to look after her mother despite her own disability. Her name is not known. The boy’s name was Adolf Hitler. The CMQ article then declares: “Quite likely the story is apocryphal. However, it does express the truth that was central to Lejeune’s vocation: people with disabilities are certainly no less human than those without.”

In 1962, Lejeune was awarded the prestigious Kennedy prize and, in 1965, he was appointed to the first Chair in Fundamental Genetics at the University of Paris. During this time, he helped thousands of parents to accept and love their children with Down’s Syndrome. He committed himself to the pro-life cause when he discovered that children with Down’s Syndrome were being aborted in ever greater numbers.

In his address on being awarded, in 1969, the William Allen Memorial Award, the highest distinction that could be granted to a geneticist, Lejeune condemned abortion. In 1973 he and his wife vigorously fought a bill filed to decriminalize abortion in France. They collected thousands of signatures from French doctors and politicians against the measure and the bill failed. However, much to his dismay, a law allowing abortion was passed in 1974. His pro-life stance led to his research grants being withdrawn and he was forced to close his laboratory.

In February 1989, Lejeune was a witness in a very unusual case argued before Judge W. Dale Young in Blount County, Tennessee. In that case, Junior L. Davis filed suit against his ex-wife, now Mary Sue Davis Stowe, over the custody of seven cryogenically frozen embryos that the two of them had created at a fertility clinic prior to their divorce. Lejeune’s testimony gave the scientific evidence that all seven of these frozen embryos are indeed living human beings, persons like the rest of us, made in God’s image. He called the canisters in which these tiny frozen human persons, along with thousands of others, were imprisoned “concentration cans,” and in 1992 published a book under that title, one of the finest pro-life books ever written.

In 1991, he wrote a summary of his reflections on medical ethics in seven brief points:
“1. Christians, be not afraid. It is you who possess the truth. Not that you invented it but because you are the vehicle for it. To all doctors, you must repeat: ‘you must conquer the illness, not attack the patient.’ 2. We are made in the image of God. For this reason alone all human beings must be respected.3. Abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. 4. Objective morality exists. It is clear and it is universal….5. The child is not disposable and marriage is indissoluble. 6. ‘You shall honor your father and mother.’ Therefore, single parental reproduction by any means is always wrong. 7. In so-called pluralistic societies, they shout it down our throats: ‘You Christians do not 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 is your democratic duty.

In 1993, Blessed Pope John Paul, his close friend, appointed Lejeune as the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. That same year he was diagnosed with lung cancer and, by Good Friday of 1994, he was critically ill. He died the next day, Holy Saturday, April 1, 1994.

Pope John Paul wrote of him: “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.”

French bishops have introduced his cause for canonization.

(c) 2011 Culture of Life Foundation.  Reproduction granted with attribution.