Restoring Humanity to Downs Children (Part 1)

Author Clara Lejeune-Gaymard Speaks of Her Father's Legacy

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By Carrie Gress

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 26, 2011 (Zenit.org).- One of my father's goals was to return the humanity to the child with Down syndrome, says author Clara Lejeune-Gaymard. 

In this interview with ZENIT, Lejeune-Gaymard, author of "Life is a Blessing: A Biography of Jerome Lejeune," speaks about her book about her father, the French scientist who discovered the source of Down syndrome, his life and work, recently republished in English by The National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

Q: Your father was the renowned first geneticist of France who traveled the world explaining his numerous scientific discoveries, including the genetic source of Down syndrome. Why is his name not better known for his important work?

Lejeune-Gaymard: That's a good question.

When he made the discovery of Trisomy 21 he could have called it "Lejeune" like many scientists do when they make discoveries. But he was not that kind of man and also he wanted to do two things.

The first was that there were a lot humiliating things that were said about children with Down syndrome, such as, the mother had bad sexual behavior, or maybe their heritage was bad.

Those children where hidden, especially in France or Europe. He wanted to restore the humanity and pride of those children to their parents by saying that it is in the genetic code and it doesn't come from the family or bad behavior.

It was also the first time that it was discovered that a disease could come from the genetic code, so it really opened the door to genetic medicine and the understanding that a chromosome could be the cause of a disease.

Just six months before the discovery the professor he was working for said it was impossible that genetic code could cause any disease. So he came up with the proof of the contrary of that.

And the second thing he wanted to do was to protect the unborn.

He became quite well known in France and very well known in the scientific community because he helped to build the first academic chair in genetics in Israel and in Spain and worked with scientists in the U.S. In France, he was the one who was always a commentator in the press on genetic issues.

In 1969, the campaign started for abortion in Europe, France and the United States. And since he was against it, all the doors were closed. He was not on the radar anymore. No one would interview him any time there was a discovery.

I think in 1971, he came to the United States and he made a speech at the National Institute for Health and afterward he wrote a message to my mother and saying: "Today, I have lost my Nobel Prize." He addressed the issue of abortion, saying, "you are forming your institute of health into an institute of death." And they hated it.

Q: Your book on your father's life is a series of snapshots into your family's life that brings to light not only his scientific work, but also his deep faith. What made you decide to write about him in this style?

Lejeune-Gaymard: I was pregnant when he was sick, expecting my sixth, and during all this time I really hoped that he would be alive long enough to see my daughter. He died on the third of April and she was born on the 13th of April, so she never knew her grandfather.

Just before he died I asked him if he would allow me to write a book on him. But I was afraid he would say no because he was a very humble man, but he said: "Do what you want. If you want to testify to the life of the child with Down syndrome, you can do what you want."

I knew that I wanted to write something for my little girl. First, I wrote 30 pages and then we went on a holiday with a journalist and I told him that I was writing a book so my daughter could know her grandfather. He read it and said I should write a book.

The way I wanted to write it was not like a chronological biography, but as different portraits of a person. There is a chapter about our life in Denmark, one about him as a doctor, one as a Christian.

Each chapter is a different piece of a puzzle and at the end you have a picture of the whole person.

Q: Your father suffered much in his career because of his pro-life stance. Were his convictions informed only by his faith or also by his scientific research?

Lejeune-Gaymard: It was because he was a doctor, not because of his faith. When you are a doctor you have swear the Hippocratic Oath not to do harm, and he was always saying the respect for life had nothing to do with the faith, even though, of course, it is in the faith to respect life.

It was also why he was so hated by the pro-abortion people. It was difficult to fight him because all his arguments where scientific arguments.

He would explain that life starts at conception, but he would tell a story that was intelligible to everyone, that of Tom Thumb. It is a story for children or a legend, but it is a reality.

It is very strange that humanity has been able to tell that kind of story without knowing that it is reality, because at the time it was written there were no photos of babies in the womb.

Life starts at the very instant of conception when the genes of the mother and the genes of father join to make a new human being, a human being that is absolutely unique.

All the genetic patrimony is already there. It is like the music of Mozart on the page. The full life is really there.

At two months, the embryo has everything, the hands, the eyes, the body. It is a very tiny body, but after two months, the only thing it does is grow. And if you could take his very little finger, you could even see his fingerprint.

[Friday: Curing Down Syndrome]

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On the Net:

"Life is a Blessing": www.ncbcenter.org/NetCommunity/SSLPage.aspx?pid=191&nccsm=21&__nccspID=991

Foundation Lejeune: http://lejeuneusa.org