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Notre Dame honours pro-life geneticist who discovered cause of Down’s syndrome

The Catholic physician’s foundation will be given the Evangelium Vitae Medal

The University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture will award the 2017 Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal to a foundation begun by the late pro-life French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune.

Lejeune, who died in 1994, was internationally known for his staunch support of pro-life causes. The Catholic physician and researcher was one of the three discoverers of the extra chromosome that causes Down’s Syndrome.

But he became unpopular among fellow-geneticists for insisting that abortion was wrong. After giving a talk on this subject at a major event, Lejeune wrote in a letter to his wife: “Today, I lost my Nobel prize in Medicine”.

In 1989, he established the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation to continue his work in research, advocacy and health care for those with intellectual disabilities. Today, the foundation has branches in Paris, Philadelphia, Madrid and Dubai, making it the largest private funder of research into genetic therapies in the world.

The Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal is a lifetime achievement award given “to heroes of the pro-life movement”, the announcement said. It honours individuals whose efforts “have served to steadfastly affirm and defend the sanctity of human life from its earliest stages.”

The recipient is announced annually on Respect Life Sunday, which this year was on October 2. The award, which is comprised of a specially commissioned medal and $10,000 prize, will be presented April 29 at Notre Dame.

“Professor Lejeune was a man of great faith, a brilliant geneticist and a prophetic voice on behalf of people who suffer from intellectual disabilities,” said Carter Snead, the William and Hazel White director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

“He spent his professional life engaged in cutting-edge scientific research into the genetic causes of disabilities like Down’s Syndrome and trisomy 18. He was motivated by deep compassion and an abiding love for disabled people, born and unborn,” Snead said in a statement.

Today, Lejeune’s foundation carries on his work “by sponsoring ethically conducted genetic research, securing health care for those with disabilities, and performing advocacy on behalf of the disabled in light of our shared human dignity, Snead said, adding that the organisation “perfectly embodies the spirit of the Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal.”

The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation is the world’s largest private funder of research into genetic therapies. Its chairman is Jean-Marie Le Mene and its vice president is Berthe Lejeune, the widow of the geneticist.

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, praised the foundation for its “inspiring commitment to serve the most vulnerable – and often least valued – among us and, through their compassionate work around the world, to build a culture of life and love.”

Jérôme Lejeune, born in 1926 in Montrouge, France, established the first specialised clinic for Down’s Syndrome patients at Necker Children’s Hospital near Paris. In 1958, while studying chromosomes linked to Down’s Syndrome, he discovered an unexpected third chromosome on the 21st pair, a genetic abnormality he named trisomy 21. This discovery was the first to link an intellectual disability to a genetic cause. Lejeune also conducted pioneering research into trisomy 18 and trisomies on the eighth and ninth chromosomal pairs.

Having discovered the genetic causes of these intellectual disabilities, Lejeune sought therapies to ameliorate their effects, believing that eventually a cure would be found for trisomies. Lejeune also devoted his life to protecting unborn children with Down’s Syndrome from so-called “therapeutic abortion,” which he regarded as a grave corruption of medicine.

“Medicine becomes mad science when it attacks the patient instead of fighting the disease,” he said. “We must always be on the patient’s side, always.”

In 1962, Lejeune was honoured by President John F Kennedy with the first Kennedy Prize for his research into intellectual disabilities. In 1969, he received the William Allen Award from the American Society of Human Genetics, the highest award possible for a geneticist.

He was appointed by St John Paul II as the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. A sainthood cause for Lejeune was opened in 2007; he was given the title “servant of God” by the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes in 2012.

Previous recipients of the Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal include the Little Sisters of the Poor, Richard Doerflinger, the now-retired associate director of the US bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities; Helen Alvaré, associate professor of law at George Mason University; and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and the Sisters of Life.


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