The pro-life movement lost a piece of its heart and soul this week with the death of Birthe Bringsted Lejeune, 92, a pro-life activist who carried on the work of her husband, the great pro-life geneticist Dr. Jerome Lejeune, after his death in 1994.
Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, and I were privileged to have known Birthe and were truly saddened to hear of her death.
Birthe was born in 1928 and moved to Paris in 1950 to work as an au pair and study French. She met Jerome there and converted to Catholicism before marrying him. The couple had five children.
In 1958, Jerome discovered that an extra chromosome caused Down syndrome and then was aghast when his discovery became a rationale for governments to legalize abortion and couples to abort children who were found to have the condition.
In an interview that Janet and I did with Birthe in Rome some years back, she spoke of Jerome’s amazing discovery and its unanticipated aftermath.
“When he began in Paris, at the Hospital of St. Louis, he had consultations with children who were referred to as ‘mongoloid,’ or in English as those having ‘Down syndrome,’ ” she said. “He was fascinated by these children, many of whom were hidden, as the parents were often ashamed and asked what brought this upon the children. Their own fault? Syphilis? Alcoholism? Something else?
“He truly gave his life for these children, whom he loved so much, and he began to search for every means possible to help them. He saw that in the palm of the hand one can already see at birth the smallest signs which can allow us to identify a child with Down syndrome.”
In 1958, using a painstaking method of separating, cutting and counting chromosomes, Jerome discovered three chromosomes, instead of two, at the 21st position. He renamed the disorder Trisomy 21.
“He thought that once that the cause had been found, the researchers would then go on to find the cure,” his wife said. But something quite different happened.
“All of the countries and all the governments, and not only in France, said this was an amazing discovery. We are going to be able to detect it before birth and we will ensure that they are not born,” she said. “What really shook things up, however, was a television program that aired on French television. With the television broadcast airing, a discussion ensued. The government announced then they would present a law that would permit abortion if it could be proved through the science that the child would be handicapped.”
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A conversation with a young boy with Trisomy 21 convinced both Jerome and Birthe that they had to oppose abortion, no matter the cost to them personally or professionally.
“We think that those affected by this condition do not understand well, however they actually understand well,” Birthe told Janet and I. “One day there was a young boy who came with his parents to see Jerome and the boy was very distraught. The young boy said that he ‘saw the television yesterday and that they are going to kill us. But you are our doctor,’ the boy said, ‘and you have to defend us.” Jerome was very distressed and told me, ‘He is right, I have to defend them.” It was from that point that he began the battle against abortion.”
In 1969 in San Francisco, while accepting the most prestigious award in the field of genetics, Jerome announced that he was opposed to abortion.
“Today I lost my Nobel Prize in medicine,” he wrote in a letter to Birthe.
But his pro-life work, and a growing friendship with then-Pope John Paul II, led the pontiff to form the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican, and name Jerome Lejeune its leader.
Jerome’s pro-life work also brought him to the U.S. Capitol, where in 1981 he testified before a U.S. Senate panel on when human life begins.
Since the discovery of Trisomy 21, the Jerome Lejeune Foundation – now active in France, Spain and the USA – has been working to find a cure for the disorder and advocate for the rights of unborn children at risk of abortion. After working by his side throughout his life, Birthe took over leadership of the organization following Jerome’s death in 1994.
A cause for canonization for Jerome is ongoing and when Janet and I asked Birthe what she thought about the possibility of her husband becoming a saint, she replied, “I stay pretty quiet about it.”
But neither she nor her husband ever stayed quiet about the sanctity of every human life and this is their lasting legacy. It’s my hope that the pro-life movement and the whole church will use Birthe’s passing as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to working for the protection of the unborn, including those children with Trisomy 21.