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The Least of These


Some years ago, when I was in the midst of an intellectual and spiritual abyss, I was visiting the family of one of my students, in the Georgetown area of the nation's capital.

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lejeuneJérôme Lejeune

There in the parlor was the one thing that could draw me out of the desert: a piano. 

Now, you have to stretch the verb "play" in my case, and the piano was out of tune, but I sat there and began to play "God of Grace and God of Glory," when two of the daughters came down from upstairs.  They had shining eyes.  One had taken a small violin and was playing the high note in the melody.  The other was singing at the top of her lungs. 

It was a glorious moment, and my host was beaming with delight.  His daughters had Down Syndrome.  "They love music," he said, egging them on, while I started to play a new melody and the girls caught it and adjusted accordingly.  We were happy and silly at once. 

That buoyed my spirits indeed — it is always a sweet thing to be near people whom God has blessed even in and by affliction.  And my confusions of intellect began to fade away like bad dreams.

Do no harm

Down Syndrome is caused by an abnormality of the twenty-first chromosome of the human genetic makeup, and is also called trisomy 21.  The man who discovered it once stood before President Kennedy to receive an award for medical accomplishments, for the good of mankind.  The year is now 1969, and the same man, the French physician and scientist Jérôme Lejeune, is speaking in San Francisco to the American Society of Human Genetics. 

Dr. Lejeune had hoped that his research into genetic abnormalities, in the field of cytogenetics, which he did so much to establish, would lead doctors to pursue cures; instead he watched in dismay as they pursued methods of early detection for the sake of what was euphemistically described as "not allowing a pregnancy to continue."  It is always easier to kill than to cure. 

So he delivered his address, "On the Nature of Men," wherein he adopted at first, with trenchant irony, the pose of one who believed that only technicians and governmental officials could determine what kinds of abnormalities would warrant preventive destruction, to alleviate the burden upon society.  The "technical" approach, he said, would best be served by a "National Institute of Death," which would: 

  1. Decree on undesirable genes or chromosomes. 
  2. Deliver unhappy parents from unwanted pregnancies.
  3. Discard embryos that did not fit standard requirements. 
  4. Dispose of newborns not reaching minimal specifications of normalcy. 
  5. And generally destroy, delete, or decry any human condition voted against by the above-mentioned board of advisers of the National Institute of Death. 

Rejecting that, and other partial approaches, Dr. Lejeune concluded his address with a plea for humility and compassion, "humility because we must recognize we have no ready-made answers, because geneticists have not broken the secret of the human condition, and because scientific arguments are of little help in ethical issues; compassion because even the most disinherited belongs to our kin, because these victims are poorer than the poorest, and because the sorrow of the parents cannot be consoled by science.  But should we capitulate in the face of our own ignorance and propose to eliminate those we cannot help?"

"For millennia, medicine has striven to fight for life and health and against disease and death," he said.  "Any reversal of the order of these terms of reference would entirely change medicine itself."  And that is what has happened, as "medicine" is employed today to kill the living and maim or thwart what is sound and whole. 

"Today I lost the Nobel Prize," said Lejeune to his wife that evening.

Sanctity in the seed

Dr. Lejeune was a devout Catholic husband and father.  I've often heard it said that people do not need religion in order to be moral.  Of course I'm speaking of the general case, nor do I forget that many a religious man will behave no better than a pagan.  Lejeune swam against the stream, and suffered for it.  He lost his laboratory.  He was denied funds for research.  Somebody painted "Death to Lejeune" on a wall at the Sorbonne.  Fellow scientists avoided him.

"Today I lost the Nobel Prize," said Lejeune to his wife that evening.

But the Church embraced him.  In 1974, Pope Paul VI created the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, with Lejeune as one of the original members; he could then freely do his work for the cure of genetic diseases and for the spiritual welfare of mankind.  Lejeune was also close to Pope John Paul II, and to King Baudouin of Belgium.  In 1989, the king invited Lejeune to testify against a pro-abortion measure being debated by the Belgian parliament.  The king was deeply distressed, and he knew that he had little constitutional power to stop it, though he would do all he could.  One thing he could do was to pray, and that was what he and Lejeune did together, at his request, on yet another of man's days that will live in infamy.

There are many stories about this genius of integrity and gentleness.  Modern man is stupefied by big things; Dr. Lejeune was in love with the small.  So we find him testifying in a trial in Tennessee, regarding the disposition of seven embryos that had been conceived in vitro from the sperm and the eggs of a man and woman who had then gotten divorced.  The father wanted to make sure that the mother did not bring them to term without his agreement. 

What was at issue?  First, biological fact.  Dr. Lejeune testified with admirable care and precision, and in a sweetly Franco-English idiom, just how astonishing the transfer of information is when the sperm fecundates the egg.  It is a unique occurrence.  That is when you have all the information you need for the development of the mature being.  It is as if you had transferred the sounds of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik into a code, he said, so that when you had the code work on the proper material, you would get not Mozart, not the musicians, and not the notes they played, but the form of the work, which would then impress itself upon the air near you, so that you would hear it.  That musical form, so to speak, is present and self-organizing and active in the conceived human being. 

But of course the morality of freezing very young people was also at issue.

Always more

Lejeune said, in his testimony, that freezing an embryo was the slowing-down of time, not totally, but to a great degree; it was to limit as far as possible the interactions among its molecules.  That sheds a stark light on what we are doing to these human beings.  When one of the lawyers asked him about the ethics of such freezing, Lejeune replied in words that are hard to gainsay.

"I think" he said, "that love is the contrary of chilly.  Love is warmth, and needs good temperature."

What explains such heroism?  Perhaps the saying of Saint Vincent de Paul, which Lejeune often quoted.  What shall we do for our neighbor?  "More," said Saint Vincent, "always more!" 

Love is the contrary of chilly.  The warmth of the mother's womb is not what Lejeune called "the fridge," the stainless steel canister. 

Lejeune's daughter Clara, in Life is a Blessing: A Biography of Jérôme Lejeune, dwells lovingly upon the man she called Papa, his humility, his care for his patients, and his good humor.  She says that when she was a little girl she didn't even know that her father was a famous scientist.  But why should he make a fuss about that?  Why he traveled all over the world, she couldn't say, but she knew why he brought back presents from everywhere: a kimono from Japan, slippers from Turkey.  It was his love.  When she grew older she saw that other people loved her father, too, because they sensed in him a companion in their suffering. 

In the days of Louis Pasteur, she wrote, doctors would smother a rabies-afflicted child between two mattresses, to spare him the terrible suffering.  But it was not they who made progress in science.  It was the one "who could not accept the thought of giving up, when confronted with sickness, suffering, and death."  Pasteur was a God-fearing man, a hero; had his treatment of the boy with rabies failed, he might have gone to prison.  His enemies would certainly have stripped him of his right to practice medicine.  He would have died in disgrace. 

What explains such heroism?  Perhaps the saying of Saint Vincent de Paul, which Lejeune often quoted.  What shall we do for our neighbor?  "More," said Saint Vincent, "always more!" 

Jérôme Lejeune died in 1994, on Easter Sunday, thirty-three days after Pope John Paul II had named him head of the new Pontifical Academy for Life.  He is called a Servant of God; and may the day soon come when we can publicly invoke his intercession along with all the other saints of the Church.  For God is not a God of death, but of life.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Least of These." Magnificat (February, 2018).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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