So much has happened since mid-October that Concerned Women for America (CWA) has been delayed in paying tribute to a magnificent pro-life advocate who died October 19, 2010. Dr. Mildred Jefferson earned an obituary in the New York Times, where she was described as “a prominent, outspoken opponent of abortion and the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School.” She described the pro-life movement as “second only to the abolitionist movement” in the way it changed American thinking.
In her “day job,” Dr. Jefferson was a professor of surgery at Boston University Medical School and the first female doctor to be licensed to practice surgery at the former Boston University Medical Center. As the first woman surgical intern, Dr. Jefferson broke many racial and gender barriers. Though she was described as a “trailblazer” as a physician and surgeon, she will be better remembered and honored for her leadership in the pro-life movement. She was founder and president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, president of the Value of Life Committee of Massachusetts, and an active member of Black Americans for Life. A colleague described her as the “greatest orator” of the pro-life movement.
In testimony before Congress in 1981, Dr. Jefferson described the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the Doe v. Bolton decisions (which provided abortion-on-demand and struck down state restrictions on abortion) as giving “my profession almost unlimited license to kill.” We catch a glimpse of her powerful oratory in one sentence of her congressional testimony; she said, “With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family, the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn.” The bill that Dr. Jefferson was supporting was sponsored by two pro-life stalwarts – Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Illinois). The Helms-Hyde bill would have declared that human life began at conception and would have allowed states to prosecute abortion as murder.
Dr. Jefferson was profiled in a 2003 issue of the pro-life magazine, American Feminist. She wrote: “I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human life to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.”
A book published in 2004, “African American Lives,” attributes her political activism to the 1970 resolution passed by the American Medical Association that stated members could ethically perform abortions in states where the procedure was legal. Dr. Jefferson argued that the Hippocratic Oath took precedence over the AMA and began her fight against abortion. Dr. Jefferson is reported to have served as a prosecution witness against a doctor charged with manslaughter for performing an abortion on a teenager.
Dr. Jefferson was known for her passion, charisma, and eloquence. She was a sought-after speaker for numerous pro-life gatherings. Colleagues remember her smile, her hats, her attractive clothing, her reluctance to wear her glasses in public, her love of patriotic red, white, and blue costumes for political events, and her joy in life. She was described as being “a thin, diminutive, soft-spoken woman” with a “kind demeanor” and was rarely without her cowboy hat or scully cap; Jefferson was a real Texan. She was the only child of a Methodist minister, the Reverend Millard F. Jefferson, and his wife, Mrs. Guthrie (Roberts) Jefferson, who was a school teacher. Those who knew her as a youngster said she often rode along with the local doctor as he made house calls on his horse-drawn buggy. Dr. Jefferson graduated from Texas College, earned an M.A. from Tufts, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. She was awarded honorary degrees from twenty-eight colleges and universities. Dr. Jefferson was known for her agility – wearing ankle weights around her home and neighborhood and loving to ski – even in her 80s.
Dr. Jefferson was deeply interested in all aspects of the pro-life cause. She had a career-long interest in medical jurisprudence and medical ethics. She was concerned about how the intersection of medicine and law affected contemporary issues, public policy, and public opinion. She ran unsuccessfully for political office as a GOP Senatorial candidate in 1982, 1984, and 1990. She believed that a “welfare mentality” contributed to the breakdown of the black American family – a topic researched and analyzed by CWA’s Beverly LaHaye Institute and in my book, “Children at Risk” (Transaction Publishers, 2010).
Dr. Jefferson was praised for her commitment as a “political activist and recipient of numerous accolades and honors” who “devoted her talents and her life to the right-to-life movement.” She served on the Boards of Directors of more than 30 pro-life organizations.
LifeNews.com quoted Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, who paid tribute to Dr. Jefferson: “In recent years, I especially enjoyed talking with her about the history of the movement and the strategies for the future. She always spoke about the movement with a fresh enthusiasm, vision, and readiness to carry out the work. Moreover, her passing should remind us of our duty to reflect on and record the history of our movement, and pass it on to the younger generations of pro-life activists.”
Dr. Jefferson once described pro-life activists: “We come together from all parts of our land. … We come rich and poor, proud and plain, religious and agnostic, politically committed and independent. … The right-to-life cause is not the concern of only a special few, but it should be the cause of all those who care about fairness and justice, love and compassion and liberty with law. …”
Her colleague, Darla St. Martin, said of her: “Mildred Jefferson used every forum available to educate America and encourage people of all ages to become active in the right-to-life movement. Her legacy will be the countless people – most especially young people – that she brought to the movement by her constant presence and tireless dedication to the cause of life.”
Tom Blumer, a pro-life blogger, criticized the media’s lack of coverage of Dr. Jefferson’s death and their lack of interest in the pioneering accomplishments of an African-American female doctor. He noted her significance as a strong, distinguished woman leader: “The importance of Dr. Jefferson’s involvement in the early stages of the pro-life movement cannot be understated. Abortion advocates in the late 1960s and early 1970s believed that they could divide the country along racial and religious lines and gain long-term majority acceptance of feticide by characterizing abortion opponents as white, Catholic, and out of touch with the rest of America. That became an impossible case to make with the indomitable Dr. Jefferson in charge of things during the right-to-life movement’s early years and the active involvement of many other Judeo-Christian faiths.”
Even if we set aside her powerful and effective advocacy for the unborn, her other achievements – accomplished in truly racist times – warrant her status as an American hero deserving of our praise and highest honors.