A man of science and conscience’| National Catholic Register
‘Book Pick’ chronicles the legacy of an outspoken and uncompromising defender of human life in the womb.
A man of science and conscience
By Aude Dugast
Ignatius Press, 2021
398 pages, $19.95
Translated by Michael J. Miller, from the French edition 2019 Jérôme Lejeune: The Freedom of the Scientist
The French geneticist and physician Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994) is famous in two often falsely opposed fields of human activity, namely science and religious faith.
As a scientist, Dr. Lejeune’s early work in genetics cemented the causal link between radiation and genetic damage. Later, in his Paris laboratory, Lejeune developed an innovative process for staining and photographing chromosomes. This methodology soon led to the work for which he is best known in medicine: in 1959, he and his co-laboratory researchers announced that they had discovered the cause of Down syndrome, an extra 21st chromosome . For these and other important contributions to science and medicine, Lejeune is sometimes called the “father of modern genetics”.
But not only did Lejeune conduct groundbreaking scientific research; he also maintained a busy clinical practice, specifically caring for children with Down’s syndrome.
It was here that her religious faith shone, for unlike many medical professionals and certainly the culture at large, Lejeune saw children with Down syndrome as beautiful, full of inherent dignity and of infinite value as children of God.
“These children, said Lejeune, wounded in their intelligence and scarred in their bodies [are] the underprivileged of science. Lejeune devoted all his scientific efforts to the discovery of an effective treatment. The reason he had worked so diligently to discover the cause is because he hoped it would open the door to finding a cure:
“We made this discovery for my patients and thanks to them. … In fact, I’m almost ashamed of the little fame that surrounds a discovery that leads us to no cure. Something has to be done !
But, as Lejeune and his lab colleagues uncovered the cause of Down syndrome and other genetic diseases, another medical innovation became commonplace: amniocentesis, the process of using a needle and syringe to obtain a sample of amniotic fluid. The procedure was originally developed to assess the health of the unborn child and institute treatments if necessary.
Predictably, agents of the culture of death were quick to pervert this life-saving technology for nefarious purposes: prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome followed by elective abortion of the affected baby. (Recent studies have shown that these prenatal tests are mostly wrong.)
Lejeune was appalled:
“Chromosomal racism is waved as a flag of freedom: they will kill the abnormal in utero since they can recognize the abnormal. [chromosomes] by a simple amniotic sample. The fact that this denial of all medicine, of all biological fraternity that unites human beings, is the only current practical application of knowledge about trisomy 21 is more than heartbreaking.
In response, Lejeune embarked on a secondary career as an advocate for the sanctity of life.
His outspoken and uncompromising defense of human life in the womb and his crusades against permissive abortion laws harmed his scientific career. He often had to scramble to obtain funding for his research when official channels refused to support his work, and he was sometimes “uninvited” to conferences. And the worst snub was being nominated several times for a Nobel Prize – which he richly deserved – but always passed over in silence.
This book is a compendium of many years of study, research, and journalistic investigation by the author, Aude Dugast, into Lejeune’s upbringing, professional career, extensive pro-life work, and devout Catholic personal life. . The level of detail she weaves into the narrative is almost overwhelming at times. Additionally, sensitive readers may bristle at the outdated term “down’s syndrome,” which was the common term for Down’s syndrome during the early years of Lejeune’s career, before the diagnosis was more widely referred to as Down syndrome. Nonetheless, it is an outstanding biography of one of the greatest scientists and pro-life crusaders of the 20th century, described so poignantly by Father Robert Spitzer as “a man of the world in a man of faith…a modern man for all seasons”.
In a papal order decree promulgated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on January 21, 2021, Jérôme Lejeune received the title of “Venerable”, given when the heroic virtue of a person is recognized on the path to canonization.
Venerable Jérôme Lejeune, pray for us!