By Anita S. Bourdin
ROME, FEB. 17, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Though many Down syndrome children are being denied their right to live, the discovery of the chromosome that causes their illness should still be considered a victory, says a genetics professor.
The discovery of the chromosome that causes Trisomy 21 and the man who made the discovery, the French scientist Jérôme Lejeune, were part of the discussion today at the presentation of the Pontifical Academy for Life general assembly. This year, the conference, to be held this Friday and Saturday, will focus on “The New Frontiers of Genetics and the Risk of Eugenics.”
Professor Bruno Dallapiccola, who teaches genetics at Rome’s La Sapienza University, spoke to ZENIT about the relationship between scientific and ethical progress, based on the example of Lejeune’s discovery 50 years ago.
Lejeune (1926-1994) discovered the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome in 1959 and received much international recognition. He never was given the Nobel Prize for medicine, an absence that some say was due to his ethical positions, particularly his opposition to abortion.
Pope John Paul II named him the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
However, his discovery has an indirect result: Today the vast majority of Down syndrome babies are killed before birth.
Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, chancellor of the pontifical academy and one of today’s presenters, recalled his personal friendship with Lejeune. He said the scientist “never regretted his discovery.”
And “ethics is possible,” he exclaimed. The monsignor cited the example of Rome’s Gemelli hospital, saying “ethics is lived” there.
“Kids with trisomy there arrive to the world,” Monsignor Carrasco de Paula affirmed. “And thanks to the improvement of their conditions of life, we can resolve the problems that they must face.”
Dallapiccola recalled how Down syndrome children were previously ostracized, but now, 50 years later, “kids with trisomy have managed to reach an autonomy never seen before […] and can discreetly integrate themselves into society. They earn degrees. Professor Lejeune’s discovery permitted this victory.”
Now, despite that in some countries as many as 90% of Down syndrome babies are aborted, the professor noted that every year, he meets 10 to 20 families who welcome a Down baby.
Dallapiccola recalled a visit to Lejeune in Paris in 1963. Since his discovery, he said, “something important changed in history,” and “that mustn’t be regretted.”