The pioneering French geneticist who discovered the cause of Down’s syndrome is one step closer to sainthood. In a statement, Pope Francis declared Jerome Lejeune “Venerable” yesterday, after acknowledging his “heroic virtue”. Alongside a miracle, heroic virtue is one of the prerequisites for beatification.
In May 1958, Lejeune found the extra chromosome, a copy of chromosome 21, which causes Down’s, while doing a study on children who had the syndrome.
After his discovery, he continued his work in genetics, identifying another syndrome, Cri du chat, and establishing that the absence of a gene segment – monosomy – can result in recognisable diseases. For the latter finding, he was presented the Kennedy Prize in 1962, by JFK.
His work enabled the prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome. However, he strenuously objected to its use and the Peyret Laws, passed in 1970, which permitted abortions in the case of fatal abnormalities.
Lejeune worked closely for pro-life causes for the rest of his career. When he was awarded the William Allan Award by the American Society of Human Genetics, he raised the issue in his speech.
“For millennia, medicine has striven to fight for life and health and against disease and death. Any reversal of the order of these terms of reference would entirely change medicine itself,” he said.
“Our duty has always been not to inflict the sentence but to try to commute the pain,” he continued.
In the 1970s he worked with Wanda Poltawska, the director of the Catholic Institute for Family in Krakow. She asked Lejeune to speak at two conferences that she organised with Monsignor Karol Wojtyla, who was elected John Paul II, in 1978.
Having travelled frequently to Rome to meet with the Pope, Lejeune was made President of the Pontifical Academy of Life in 1994. Diagnosed with lung cancer the year before, he died just 33 days after taking up the post.