Remembering Jerome Lejeune, Founder and First President

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Vatican City. On Friday 14 June, the Pontifical Academy for Life remembered its First President, the Venerable Servant of God Prof. Jérôme Lejeune (13 June 1926 - 3 April 1994), on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death.  Those speaking at the conference included  Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, by prof. Jean-Marie Lé Méné, President of the Lejeune Foundation, prof. Monica Lopez Barahona, of the Jérôme Lejeune International Chair in Madrid, prof. Giuseppe Novelli, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Rome 'Tor Vergata'. Moderator: Mgr. Renzo Pegoraro, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

During the afternoon, the book by Aude Dugast, Postulator of the Cause of Beatification, Jérôme Lejeune la libertà dello scienziato (Edizioni Cantagalli), was presented in the presence of the Author.

Professor Jerome Lejeune was a renowned geneticist, ardent advocate for those with genetic disabilities, and the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He was born in 1926 in Montrogue, France and was the first to establish a specialized clinic to study Down Syndrome. His research made the discovery that those with Down Syndrome have 47 chromosomes, compared with the 46 chromosomes found in most people. Since the extra chromosome was found on the 21st pair, he coined the term trisomy 21. In addition to studying Down Syndrome, he also made findings on other chromosome deletions and additions that resulted in other types of genetic disabilities. His findings were profound because for the first time disabilities were being linked to genetics.

Professor Lejeune was motivated to protect those with intellectual genetic disabilities and preserve their health. Faith was deeply important to Professor Lejeun and he wanted to protect the human beings who he devoted his life's work to. The recent conference at the Pontifical Academy for Life discussed the heightened risk factors that those with Down Syndrome may have, including heightened bodily inflammation and autoimmunity. Furthermore, clinical drug trials for those with Down Syndrome are compromised since the degree of intellectual or physical disabilities, lifestyles, comorbidities, and drug responses vary depending on the individual. Currently, medical researchers are working towards new treatments to improve the health of those with Down Syndrome.

As the Pontifical Academy for Life is dedicated to the preservation and protection of life, new medical technology and research must be ethically evaluated. Professor Lejeune promoted the teaching that the lives of the most vulnerable in society should be the most protected and that medical professionals have the duty to not harm their patients. This sentiment is most important when looking at issues of induced abortions and prenatal testing for genetic disorders. Professor Lejeune advocated for the preservation of life and human dignity, explaining that doctors and institutions do not have the right to decide which human beings are worthy of life. Human life and dignity are innate gifts from God, and must be preserved and treated as such. Today, medical practices and ethics verge more into the technical sphere and away from philosophical and humanistic approaches. This trend can lead to a rather dangerous space where human dignity and spirituality are neglected. Therefor, it is ever more important to design medical and bioethical practicum that is in accordance with the preservation of human life and dignity that Professor Lejeune dedicated himself to.

Today, the relevance of Jérôme Lejeune's work and underlying message remains intact, summed up in that simple and effective phrase that the Servant of God loved to repeat: "La qualité d'une civilisation se mesure au respect qu'elle porte aux plus faibles de ses membres", "The quality of a civilisation is measured by the respect it shows to the weakest". A message and a warning that is always valid.

(Summary by Grace Karmazin-Schneider, Notre Dame University Rome)


Grace Karmazin-Schneider

Grace Karmazin-Schneider