‘If I don’t protect them, I am nothing”: The man who discovered Down syndrome


The world was his oyster. Not only was he a young, handsome medical researcher passionate about improving human lives, but he was the first to make the genetic breakthrough that Down syndrome is caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome.

Fame, glory, and prestige were heaped upon him for his discovery. He was splashed across the front pages of national newspapers. He became an advisor to the president. He received the highest award in genetics. He shot to distinction as a scholar, teacher, and researcher.

But Dr. Jerome Lejeune of France was also a man of truth, committed to his principles.

One day national television showed a film about a woman pregnant with a Down syndrome child. The mother wanted to abort her baby, but the laws at the time favored life. A debate followed the film, during which people he perceived as strong and powerful advocated for aborting these children.

The day after the show, a young boy with Down syndrome burst into Dr. Jerome’s busy practice, his distraught face streaked with hot tears.

“Why are you crying,” Dr. Jerome asked him.

The boy, about 10, could not collect himself so the boy’s mother replied: “He saw the movie, and I couldn’t stop him crying.”

At that moment, the boy threw himself into the doctor’s arms and managed to say between sobs: “You know…they want to kill us…And you have to save us, because we are too weak…and we can’t do anything.”

Dr. Jerome’s daughter, Clara Lejeune Gaymard, remembers this as the day her heroic father became a voice for the voiceless.

Clara recounted, in a 2011 interview with Leticia Velasquez, that day her father came home for lunch. She remembers his face being ashen white as he recounted to his family what had just occurred in his practice.

He then spoke words that his daughter will forever remember: “If I don’t protect them, I am nothing.”

Clara said that from this moment onward, Dr. Jerome became outspoken against abortion, a champion for life in the womb.

Because of his public position against abortion, Dr. Jerome’s career immediately began to be attacked by those who had only recently bestowed praise upon him. He lost grants to continue his research.

“He was like a pariah, and so on, but he accepted that because he thought he was doing that which was his duty,” recounted Clara.

“Here is a man who, because his convictions as a physician prohibited him from following the trends of the time, was banned from society, dropped by his friends, crucified by the press, prevented from working for lack of funding,” Clara wrote in her 1997 biography of her father titled Life Is a Blessing, A Biography of Jerome Lejeune.

Despite hostility and ostracization from medical colleagues, Dr. Jerome fearlessly continued to speak out frequently against abortion, not only in France, but in Europe and abroad.

As an expert witness in a 1989 abortion-related court in the U.S., Dr. Jerome testified: “I know there are babies, there are human beings in the fridge, this is the only thing I know.”

“And I would say that science has a very simple conception of man,” he said. “As soon as he has been conceived, a man is a man.”

As a scientist committed to truth, Dr. Jerome knew that all the evidence pointed to the new life in the womb being a unique unrepeatable human being. His scientific knowledge would not allow him to condone the destruction of any human being.

Dr. Jerome continued to fight on behalf of Down syndrome children. He was heartbroken to see his genetic discovery being used to test unborn children for the syndrome so that they could be aborted.

Stats indicate that about 90 percent of children with Down syndrome are rejected and destroyed by their parents, just because they have one extra chromosome.

“They brandish chromosomal racism like the flag of freedom,” he once wrote. “That this rejection of medicine—of the whole biological brotherhood that binds the human family—should be the only practical application of our knowledge is beyond heartbreaking.”

But Dr. Jerome saw all life as a blessing. He knew that people with an extra chromosome had something extra special to give the world. Stats show that 99 percent of person’s living with the syndrome report being happy and enjoying fulfilling lives. A staggering 97 percent of families who have children with chromosomal abnormalities report that these children “enriched their lives,” irrespective of the length of their lives.

Dr. Jerome died in 1994 at age 67. His life’s work and unwavering convictions about the value of human life did not go unnoticed by people of faith. In 2004 Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini of Francecalled for the opening of his cause for beatification, the first step to becoming a recognized saint in the Catholic Church.

“He was a man of science who lived his Christian faith in his professional work, heroically, showing his faith with a simplicity and joy, serving life with a full devotion and complete disinterest,” said Cardinal Angelini at that time.

Advocates for Down syndrome children are urging people today to follow the example of Dr. Jerome by not being afraid to embrace those with an extra chromosome.

“Authentic and effective Down syndrome advocacy must begin by embracing and advocating specifically for the baby with Down syndrome in the womb,” wrote Monica Rafie, co-founder of Be Not Afraid Ministry, an outreach to parents grappling with prenatal diagnosis.

As Dr. Jerome would often tell people about his stance for life: “I have to tell the truth. I’m not judging anyone; I’m not saying anything else besides the truth of the science, and I have to testify about that.”


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