Life is a Blessing: A Biography of Jérôme Lejeune by Clara Lejeune (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), tr. by Michael J. Miller from the original French, La Vie est un bonheur: Jérôme Lejeune, mon père, 156 pp. $12 USD, $18 CAD, ISBN 2-7413-0163-8.
The name Jérôme Lejeune is well known to Canadian pro-lifers. The distinguished geneticist crossed the Atlantic several times to reassure Canadian audiences that science has, indeed, established that life begins at conception when sperm fertilizes egg. His most notable appearance was as an expert witness for the humanity of the unborn during the Joe Borowski “Trial of the Century”. There, he testified that “At the moment of fertilization the whole symphony of life is ready to be played out.” When the defense counsel asked him whether his Roman Catholicism had influenced his views, he stated that he opposed abortion because he is a geneticist and a scientist.
Life is a Blessing is a memoir and an accolade from the pen of the youngest of his four daughters and five children. There can be no more touching tribute for a father than to be praised by his children, especially by a daughter. “How does one write a book about one’s father?” Clara asks in her preface. “His life is at the same time too near and too far for the solemnity of the usual biography. Too near because affection can scarcely maintain a critical point of view; too far because his story is not ours, even though we are, from a certain moment on, intimately involved in it.” Clara’s account of her father’s life and dedication to the sick and the handicapped is told from the heart, as it should be, coming from his daughter.
But there is a second reason for the appropriateness of the heart. Lejeune, although a scientist of world-class distinction, fully understood the importance of the heart. “Our intelligence is not just an abstract machine,” he wrote, “it is also incarnate, and the heart is as important as the faculty of reason, or more precisely, reason is nothing without the heart.”
That Lejeune’s heart was never dissociated from his scientific intelligence is a leitmotif that characterizes the essence of his life. Lejeune carved his niche in history’s pantheon of science when he discovered the genetic cause – trisomy 21 – of Down syndrome. One day a popular television program in France, Un dossier de l’écran (On Screen Dossier), aired a debate on the question of aborting unborn children who had trisomy 21. The debate put terror in the hearts of both Down syndrome children as well as their parents. The next day, a ten-year-old boy with trisomy arrived at Lejeune’s office for consultation. He was crying inconsolably. As his mother explained, “He watched the debate last night.” The child threw his arms around Dr. Lejeune’s neck and said to him, “They want to kill us. You’ve got to defend us. We’re just too weak, and we don’t know how.” “From that day on,” Clara reports, “Papa would untiringly come to the defense of the pre-born child.”
Lejeune’s commitment to the unborn remained passionate and unswerving for the rest of his life. It required great courage, however, and exacted many personal sacrifices. On one occasion, during a debate at the Mutualité, he was hit in the face with raw calves’ liver and tomatoes. Another time, took the podium at the United Nations and decried their professed sympathy for abortion. “Here we see an institute of health that is turning itself into an institute of death.” That evening, writing to his wife, he confided, “This afternoon I lost my Nobel Prize.” Political correctness, to be sure, held absolutely no attraction for Lejeune.
But his pro-life commitments created problems for his family members as well. Clara recalls that when she was 12 or 13 years of age, she and her sister, when riding their bicycles past the walls of the medical school, were horrified to find the following ominous threats painted in black letters: “Tremble, Lejeune! The MLAC [a revolutionary student movement] is watching.” “Lejeune is an assassin. Kill Lejeune.” “Lejeune and his little monsters must die.”
Lejeune never descended to the vulgarity of fighting against people. “I am fighting false ideas,” he would say. If he was fighting at all, he was fighting for people. Yet that was enough to make him the target of angry attackers. He became, as his daughter tells us, “the object of unconscious fury on the part of those who set themselves up as the apostles of tolerance.” The litany of persecutions and discriminations her suffered was extensive, and yes, to use that tired word, “incredible”.
Clara and her siblings bore the stigma of being the children of Professor Jérôme Lejeune. They learned, rather painfully, that “we have to live with labels that don’t define us.” It was, as Clara describes it, a new kind of “original sin”.
Dr. Lejeune maintained his deep concern for the suffering even when he, himself, was near death and suffering acutely from both the cancer that finally killed him and the massive chemotherapy he was undergoing. As his daughter testifies, he would answer the telephone while exhausted, between bouts of vomiting, in order to discuss a therapeutic hypothesis with a colleague. “His suffering was intolerable at times,” writes Clara, “but he was always considerate of others; he put himself in their place.”
During his last days, when what little strength he had was ebbing from his body, he identified with the motto of the Roman Legionary, “Et si fellitur de genu pugnat” (And if he should fall, he fights on his knees). For Lejeune, life, compassion, and service were all inseparably intertwined.
He passed away, in accord with a presentiment he had, on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994. Pope John Paul II delivered a eulogy the next day in which he referred to “our brother Jérôme,” and stated that “If the Father who is in heaven called him from this earth on the very day of Christ’s Resurrection, it is difficult not to see in this coincidence a sign.”
Lejeune and the Holy Father were close friends. Professor Lejeune and his wife had enjoyed lunch with the Pope on that near fatal day of May 13, 1981 when an assassin’s bullet rang out in Vatican Square. That very night, Lejeune experienced stomach pains so severe that he was taken by an ambulance to a hospital. “No one understood what was wrong,” writes his daughter, “and he experienced the pain of the Pope’s wound.” He would have surgery, as did the Holy Father. Their temperature curves were similar, and they left the hospital on the same day. Was it a “coincidence”? Was it a “God-incident”? Or was it the result of a powerful bond between spiritual brothers that passes understanding?
Lejeune could never do enough for his patients. Two images provided him with recurring guidance and inspiration. The first is the final line from Brahms’ Requiem: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord. For their works follow them”. Lejeune’s compassionate work continues under the auspices of La Foundation Jérôme Lejeune, which was established in his name to continue his research into the causes and treatments of mental handicaps. The second is St. Vincent de Paul’s reply when the Queen asked him, “What must one do for one’s neighbor?” “More!”
Life is a Blessing is itself a blessing, providing clarity and inspiration to counteract our darkening world. Clara Lejeune, worthy or her name, provides that clarity, which is also eternally young.