We have a dearth of public, real-life heroes. Most public figures, whether in entertainment or politics, fall far from the mark when it comes to someone we should imitate. We may be able to find examples of heroes such as Captain America or Iron Man but, in many ways, their heroism fails to really guide our actions in real life because they are not confined by the same demands that we are.
If we look hard, however, there are a few quiet heroes in our recent history. Jerome Lejeune is a powerful hero for us, both as an example of one who utilized his talents to serve others and as an example of one who was willing to be a pro-life evangelist.
Lejeune: A Brilliant Man of Science
Born in 1926 near Paris, Jerome Lejeune became a physician and researcher following the Second World War. In 1950s, Lejune worked as a researcher under Raymond Turpin at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris. Lejeune and Turpin worked with patients who, at that time, were know as “mongols” (known know as Down syndrome). Initial research showed a connection between these mongol characteristics and the child’s fingerprints and lines on the child’s hands. Because development of these lines occurs at the earliest stages of embryo formation, he postulated that these abnormalities should be traceable to the earliest stages of human embryonic development. He began carefully studying the chromosomes of individuals with these anomalies and he discovered a common chromosomal anomaly: an additional chromosome of the 21st pair. Lejeune’s discovery of trisomy 21 was groundbreaking because he was establish for the first time a link between intellectual disability and genes.
Subsequently, Lejeune identified the chromosomal causes of several other diseases. He discovered that a missing segment of chromosome 5 was responsible for Cri du Chat Syndrome, a syndrome which derived its name from the characteristic cry of affected infants that sounds similar to a meowing cat. Lejeune also discovered syndromes caused by abnormalities on chromosomes 8, 9, 13, and 18.
Not surprisingly, Lejeune was a sought-after presenter at scientific conferences and received numerous accolades for his breakthrough research. For his work, he was presented in 1969 with the William Allen Award by the American Society of Human Genetics, the highest honor in the field of genetics.
Lejeune: A Pro-Life Messenger
While his work lead to new therapeutic research into how trisomies could cause diseases, it also led to development of prenatal diagnostic tools to determine whether a child in utero bore a chromosomal abnormality and, therefore, abortion of those pregnancies. In France, like in America, pressure grew during the 1960’s for laws that would allow abortion. This development greatly disturbed Lejeune who was Catholic and believed firmly in Church teachings on the sanctity of life.
It was during this time when a ten-year-old boy with Down syndrome was seen by Lejeune. The child was crying uncontrollably. His parents explained that their son had become upset after seeing debates that called for children with Down syndrome to be aborted. In that moment, Lejeune pledged to combat discarding of fellow human beings who were viewed as less desirable.
He became a public voice speaking out for the dignity and sanctity of all human life. He saw the importance of defending the weak in preserving a civilized society, stating:
We need to be clear: The quality of a civilization can be measured by the respect it has for its weakest members. There is no other criterion.
He believed that his fellow scientists had a duty to utilize its knowledge wisely. He wrote:
It is not medicine we should fear, but the folly of mankind. Every day, the experience of our predecessors increases our ability to change nature by using its own laws. But using this power wisely is what each generation must learn in its turn. We are certainly more powerful today than ever before, but we are no wiser: Technology is cumulative, wisdom is not.
He was not afraid to remind his fellow researchers and physicians of this. Indeed, after receiving the Allen prize, Lejeune addressed his colleagues, specifically questioning the morality of abortion, a position no favored by his peers. Writing about this to his wife, Lejeune noted, “Today, I lost my Nobel prize in medicine.”
Lejeune’s pro-life voice was recognized by Pope John Paul II, who met with Lejeune several times. Pope John Paul II appointed Lejeune president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, a new pontifical academy. Lejeune drafted its bylaws and served as President for a few weeks before succumbing to lung cancer in April 1994.