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“To the Least of These My Brothers and Sisters”

by | Mar 17, 2016

A film review by Leticia Velasquez, co-founder, KIDS (Keep Infants with Down Syndrome)

Editor’s note. World Down Syndrome Day is observed annually on March 21 to raise public awareness of and about Down syndrome.

Dr. Jerome Lejeune

Dr. Jerome Lejeune

In 2014, the French director Francois Lespes created a documentary to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the passing of Dr. Jerome Lejeune.

One of the 20th century’s most prominent scientists, Dr. Lejeune, was a French physician and researcher who, in 1958, discovered trisomy 21, also called Down syndrome.

“To the Least of These My Brothers and Sisters” examines his legacy as a brilliant, celebrated scientist and how, at the apex of his fame, his conscience bid him to remind his fellow scientists to respect the dignity of every human being from the moment of conception. Immediately, the scientific community abandoned and vilified him and he related in a letter to Birthe his wife, that his stand cost him the possibility of a Nobel Prize.

Undaunted by rejection, threats to him and his family, and loss of funds for his research, Lejeune appeared on French Television defending the dignity of not only those with extra chromosomes but every human life regardless of age or frailty. He became the leader of French pro-life movement in the 1970s, and testified in a divorce case in Maryville, Tennessee on whether the couple’s frozen embryos were property or human beings to be given in custody to the mother.

Pope Paul VI appointed Dr. Lejeune to the Pontifical Council of Science and Pope St. John Paul II consulted him on matters of science. He made a point to visit Lejeune’s grave in his trip to Parish in 1996.

The story of Lejeune’s life is told through interviews in both English and French (dubbed) from those who knew him. Scientists, physicians, friends, colleagues and family members tell the story of a man whose life left an indelible mark on those who agreed with him and those who opposed him.

Although the film is an homage to the scientist-turned-activist, it does not tell the viewer what to think. The film allows the interviews and the facts to speak for themselves in true scientific fashion.

The film shows a little of Lejeune’s human side; Lejeune was fond of using his hands to fashion things at home; he was thrifty, riding his bicycle to work.

His self-sacrificing character and devotion to his family which is evident in his daughter Clara Lejeune Gaymard’s memoir, Life is a Blessing is not given much space in this film. It is rather aimed at his legacy as an unusual figure on the world stage, that of a scientist who did not worship science for its own sake and a famous person who allowed his fame to become infamy as he followed the dictates of his conscience.

The two sources of heartbreak in Lejeune’s career, that his discovery of the cause of Down syndrome made prenatal testing and abortion for disability possible, and that he did not develop a cure for Down syndrome before his death, are central to this dramatic documentary. Interspersed brilliantly is the history of how those with Down syndrome have been treated in our society.

Rather than the merely story of a martyr for his faith, the film ends with a tribute to his legacy, dramatically changing life for those with three copies of the 21st chromosome.

Those who love someone with Down syndrome or other special needs, those who are interested in science and its relationship to public policy, those in the pro-life community, as well as those who are interested in recent heroes of the faith, will find this film riveting.

Categories: Down Syndrome