Prenatal testing and the right to life

When the eminent Professor Jérôme Lejeune discovered the cause of Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) in 1959, he knew the information could be used for good or for evil.  He had pursued the discovery with good intent, but the values of the world, and medicine along with it, were changing fast.

The faithful scientist lamented the fact that his discovery of the extra copy of chromosome 21 lead to what he termed “chromosomal racism.”1  His research findings, a good in themselves, opened wide the doors for those who had evil intent to utilise the discovery to test children before birth in order to destroy them by abortion. 

This terrible reality was a heavy burden for Lejeune.  His biographer, Aude Dugast, directly quotes a journal article from him.

“The fact that this denial of all medicine, of all biological fraternity that unites human beings, should be the only current practical application of the knowledge about trisomy 21 is more than heartbreaking.” 2

Until his death in 1994, Professor Lejeune bravely stood against the anti-life tidal wave that spread throughout France, and all of the Western world.  He did everything he could to fight the forces that used his discovery to exterminate rather than heal.  Even when the Nobel Prize was a very real possibility, he refused to acquiesce.

He stood firm in his conviction:  “Either we will cure them of their innocence, or else it will be the massacre of the innocents.”3

Always on the side of his “little patients”, Professor Lejeune wanted this genetic knowledge to be the catalyst for finding a cure for Down syndrome, and other conditions caused by chromosomal differences.

“Children with trisomy 21 will soon be killed in their mother’s womb, that is certain, and I will only be able to postpone the day a little.  But although that battle has been lost in advance, I know that the war against the disease can still be won.”4

Prenatal testing is now routine

Lejeune’s certainty that children with Down syndrome, and many other anomalies, would be sought out in order to be destroyed before birth has indeed become a reality.  Prenatal testing has now become routine.  Any hint of a disability and abortion is offered, or as many parents of children with disabilities would attest to, actively pushed, as the only logical solution to what is deemed a “problem,” or “hopeless situation.”

A memory haunts me of an overheard conversation held between a hospital staff member (possibly a ward midwife), and a new mother.  The mother had just arrived on the maternity ward after the birth of her child.  The conversation went something like this:

“Oh!  Your baby has Down syndrome,” stated the staff member with obvious shock and disbelief in the tone of her voice.

“Yes,” replied the new mother.

Completely oblivious to her inappropriate and seriously rude probing of the mother, the staff member continued on, “Were you not offered abortion?”

“Yes,” replied the mother yet again, “but why would I abort my precious baby?”

This horrid exchange occurred more than ten years ago. 

Why did the staff member accost the mother with such negativity at the birth of her precious gift?  The only answer is that eugenics – the idea that some lives are not worthy of life – is alive and well in New Zealand, and it has weaved its discriminatory tentacles everywhere.

Gifts from God with a Right to Life

All children are precious gifts from God; created with an inherent dignity that comes from being made in God’s image and likeness.

Each child is due respect, love, and care. 

Fundamentally, every child conceived has the right to life. 

This important, foundational teaching was reaffirmed in Donum Vitae – The Instruction on Respect for Human Life.

“From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has “wished for himself ” and the spiritual soul of each man is “immediately created” by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator. Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves “the creative action of God” and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.  God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being.”5

Saint John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, notes how clearly evident the sacredness and right to life of every human being is to all who honestly seek the truth.

“Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.”6

Therefore, we read in the Convention on the Rights of Child (United Nations, 1989) that “every child has the inherent right to life.”7 (Article 6).  A child is defined in the document as “a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years.”8

Science affirms that the pre-born child is a human being.  From the moment of fertilization, the human embryo cannot be anything else but human.

Protecting the most innocent of children among us – the unborn – is a duty for all.

Is prenatal testing moral?

Prenatal testing is not an evil, and can be used for good, but the Church does caution parents and medical practitioners about its use.

Answering a question regarding the morality of prenatal testing, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that

“Such diagnosis is permissible, with the consent of the parents after they have been adequately informed, if the methods employed safeguard the life and integrity of the embryo and the mother, without subjecting them to disproportionate risks.”9

However, the CDF noted that the use of prenatal testing “is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion depending upon the results: a diagnosis which shows the existence of a malformation or a hereditary illness must not be the equivalent of a death-sentence.”10

Routine prenatal testing is not always necessary.  When there is cause to undergo prenatal tests to provide more information and assist with determining treatment options, the risks ought to be proportionate to need.  The purpose of prenatal testing must always be to achieve the best outcome for both mother and baby.

Prenatal testing should never be undertaken with the intention to abort the life of the child in the womb if there is a disability, or other problem detected; nor should there be a plan to induce the baby early (without legitimate clinical reason) in order that his or her life may come to a premature end.

Parents must be vigilant, and determined to protect the life of their pre-born child when faced with difficult situations, and the negative attitude of members of the medical profession.

Professor Jérôme Lejeune had clear insight into how the future would look.  Too often the path taken after an adverse diagnosis is that of abortion.  We must walk alongside families in this great hour of need.  Like Professor Lejeune, each of us must stand courageously and without fear for the protection of the little ones, especially those whose existence is determined by the world as a “life unworthy of life.”


  1. Dugast, Aude,  Jérôme Lejeune a Man of Science and Conscience, translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2021),  146.   Dugast quotes a passage from Jerome Lejeune’s personal journal in which he states that “chromosomal racism is being waved around as a flag of freedom:  they will kill the abnormal ones in utero since they can recognize the abnormal karyotype by a simple amniotic sample.”
  2. Dugast, Jérôme Lejeune, 146.
  3. Dugast, Jérôme Lejeune, 146.
  4. Dugast, Jérôme Lejeune, 146.
  5. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae: Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation; Replies to certain questions of the day (February 22, 1987), n. 5.
  6. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995), n. 2.
  7. “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Article 6, United Nations,
  8. United Nations, “Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
  9. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, n. 5. I. 2.
  10. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, n. 5. I. 2.

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