Dr. Jerome Lejeune. Wikimedia Commons

Love for Truth... on Display

Eight high school students and a teacher are driven by the desire to know more about the life of Servant of God Dr. Jerome Lejeune. The challenge to share what they discovered in an exhibit found its inspiration in Giussani’s "The Religious Sense."
Barbara Gagliotti

Dateline 1970. Los Angeles, California. At the height of the growing abortion debate, the editors of the esteemed scientific journal California Medicine noted the “curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception.” Even though “everyone really knows,” in 1973 abortion-on-demand became a right enshrined among those most precious in the land of liberty as essential to the pursuit of happiness.
Dateline 2010. Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters of the National Institutes of Health. Biologist Ombretta Salvucci encounters a new friend, Jerome Lejeune, 16 years after his death.

Dr. Lejeune, Servant of God, was the geneticist renowned for identifying the first chromosome disease, Trisomy 21, commonly known as Down Syndrome (see Traces, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011, p. 28). Two curious facts, eight girls, and a teacher. That’s all it takes to set the human heart in motion. The students are introduced to the peculiar facts during their weekly GS youth group gathering at the Brookewood School for Girls in Kensington, Maryland. They hear the story of Dr. Salvucci; how her Google search for a patron scientist-saint yielded a powerful and intelligent advocate in Lejeune, a friend whose work on earth was far from done. The group decides to create an exhibit to illustrate the life and work of the pioneering geneticist.

But how to adequately tell Lejeune’s story? Shortly after receiving the highest honors in his field, the young professor was ostracized by the scientific community for his defense of the intellectually handicapped. He believed it was the task of medicine to treat the sick, not to practice “chromosomal racism,” as he called it. He dedicated his entire life to finding a cure for Down Syndrome, to treating patients and caring for their needs. He was ridiculed and persecuted on account of his beliefs. There is plenty of material available for studying Lejeune’s work: a biography in English, a book-length transcript of a case in Tennessee involving the custody of frozen embryos, and testimony before the United States Senate. Yet how to illustrate the reasonableness of his position in a world where everything pulls in the opposite direction? Weeks of research, reading, discussion, and finally a hypothesis emerges. What if we were to take the three premises of The Religious Sense by Fr. Giussani at their word, to see if they really can help us understand reality better, to test whether we can know more than those who claim to be in-the-know. The die is cast. We split into groups to “specialize” in one of Giussani’s three principles of knowledge: realism, reasonableness, and the morality of knowing.

Observing the facts. Marta Brown, Marta Stohlman, and Mary Davern seem to have the easy part: observing reality. What led Jerome to his groundbreaking discovery? His own attentive observation of the facts. While studying the cell makeup of twins, an anomaly occurs: identical twins, one Down, the other not. Why weren’t they the same? Perhaps an error in copying genetic information from mother to child. The technique for mapping the chromosome, karyotyping, had just been invented, allowing him to prove his theory. He discovers a third chromosome on the 21st pair, a trisomy.
Is the same principle useful for us today? Mary Davern, who, halfway through the project, became rather frustrated because “realism” wasn’t interesting enough, was challenged to stick to the facts. What she discovered was an incredible correspondence between the way Lejeune described life in the womb in the 1980s and the sonographic imagery which came into use many years later. Only if we pay attention to our own reality can we experience what is interesting in it.

Martha Rivas, Chiara Petrucelli, and Sally Jankovic tackled morality in the process of knowing. From day one, Martha points out a crucial passage: love for the truth of your own destiny will give you the energy to love the truth of everything else. The girls discover that this energy is necessary to sift through hundreds of pages of documentation. Chiara studies the case of the frozen embryos, where husband and wife were engaged in a custody battle over the new lives they had conceived artificially. Here, Lejeune demonstrated his great love by flying from Paris to Tennessee for just one day to share with the court the scientific data and the Wisdom of Solomon. Custody, Lejeune said, should be awarded to the true parent, i.e., the one who wanted the children to live, as in the case with Solomon of old. Smooth sailing so far on the high seas of knowledge–until an iceberg is spotted on the horizon. Katie Davern and Catherine Glaser are assigned the chapter on reason and its use. They outlined the methods reason employs: science, mathematics, philosophy, and faith, and learn that each must be adequate to the object under study. The two high school seniors are tasked with examining Senate subcommittee proceedings on the Human Life Bill of 1981.

Unborn Child. Flickr

The legislation sought to bring scientific consensus to bear upon the question of life in the hope of gaining Constitutional protection for pre-born persons under the 14th Amendment. Lejeune was one of 57 expert witnesses to testify over the course of the eight-day proceedings. Medical doctors, scientists, and university professors from the most prestigious institutions in the world–Harvard, UPenn, Mayo Clinic–were in overwhelming agreement: “Conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being, a being that is alive and is a member of the human species.” Only a single scientist disagreed with the majority conclusion, Leon Rosenberg of Yale University, yet his testimony received the widest press coverage of the day. Rosenberg said he knew “of no scientific evidence which bears on when the question of actual life begins.” Furthermore, he felt the others scientists had “failed to distinguish between their moral or religious positions and their professional judgments.”

The lightbulb goes on. The criticism strikes the desired target and insinuates doubt in the hearts of the students. Are Lejeune and the others overemphasizing the scientific data to bolster their religious beliefs? Does science have any bearing on whether a mass of cells is human? More pertinent to the group, can the three premises guide them through the murky waters? They are shaken, but decide to proceed... Love for the truth requires that they follow the newly raised questions, wherever they may lead. The girls quickly realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and turn to friends for help.

First stop, the New York Encounter, where, in addition to meeting members of the Lejeune family, the girls have the opportunity to speak with John Haas, President of the Pontifical Council for Life, and Giorgio Ambrosio, physicist at the Fermi Lab in Chicago. Later on, they initiate e-mail contact with Carlo Lancellotti, Professor of Mathematics at the City University of New York. Dr. Lancellotti helps the group understand precisely where the problem lies. In the “very strict” sense of the term, science is not equipped to make statements about what makes a being human or when a new life begins. These questions require philosophical steps. However, Lancellotti, points out that biologists take these philosophical steps all the time when they set up their experiments and when they draw conclusions. A lightbulb goes on!

The “Scientific Method,” employed every day by scientists in their work, contains a broader view of reality than “the very strict sense” of science allows for. Scientists must make many non-scientific, yet reasonable, assumptions in order to come to know the truth, such as, the universe exists independently of us, it is stable and predictable, nature behaves uniformly and not haphazardly, etc, etc, etc. David L. Schindler, philosopher and theologian at the John Paul II Institute, concurs, “The problem with Rosenberg is that his argument about what the data show is governed by philosophical presuppositions of which he himself is ignorant–the bane of so much contemporary science.” Pay dirt! Science routinely relies on philosophy and faith to know and to pass on knowledge. The students modify a familiar “Scientific Method” diagram found in every science textbook to illustrate the point. When Dr. Maria Teresa Landi, senior researcher at the National Cancer Institute, sees the diagram she exclaims, “This is incredibly important work you are doing. The ‘pure’ science of the Scientific Method that we defend in theory is not what we apply in practice. Scientists are not willing to admit this.”

Four months of hard work and the project is finally completed, 30 panels in all. After showing the exhibit at the GS Winter Vacation, the group is invited to St. Joseph’s School in Greenville, South Carolina. There they give tours every hour, explaining what they have learned and answering questions. Headmaster Keith Kaiser is visibly moved by what he saw: “I didn’t expect to be so struck by the unity of those girls with their teacher or the clarity with which they spoke. They learned to look at life and make a judgment through the eyes of Fr. Giussani. It made me re-think the whole way we educate.”