Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No.7: Mildred Jefferson
by Oxford Students for Life
Of all of the pro-life heroes and heroines we’ve featured in this series, perhaps none is more worthy of her place in the pro-life hall of fame than Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Certainly none could be more qualified to speak out on the subject of abortion, as Dr. Jefferson spent her life doing. As a woman, a doctor, and a member of a long-oppressed racial minority in the United States, Jefferson experienced firsthand the struggle to defend the rights of the vulnerable against the will of the strong. And so she devoted her life to the pro-life cause, which she called “the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man”.
Born in Pittsburg, Texas in 1926, Jefferson distinguished herself at an early age. After graduating summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree from Texas College at the age of 16, and earning her master’s degree from Tufts, Jefferson became the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951 and went on to be the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital and the first female doctor at the Boston University Medical Center. The timeline of her early career is impressive enough, but it was in the early 1970s, when increased cultural and legal trends towards abortion gathered momentum, that Jefferson came to the fore as one of the earliest and most outspoken leaders of the modern pro-life movement.
Many argue that abortion is a moral grey issue, absent a clear-cut right or wrong. Dr. Jefferson knew this was not so. She famously said:
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 lives 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.
Jefferson helped found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Black Americans for Life, and the National Right to Life Committee (of which she served as President for three terms), and ran as a political candidate on a pro-life platform in the 1980s and 90s. She served on the boards of dozens of pro-life organizations and lobbied to support other pro-life political candidates. Up until her death in 2010, Jefferson gave speeches against abortion and in support of other pro-life advocates.
Beyond her commitment to the cause – evident in the bare facts of her life – Jefferson’s strength as a pro-life advocate stemmed from her talents as a leader and orator, and her ability to understand the issue from several different perspectives. As a doctor, Jefferson knew that abortion is killing, and that licensing doctors to kill is a perversion of medical care. She insisted that “my earnest effort is to uphold medicine as a high calling, a sacred profession.” As a black woman raised in the United States before the Civil Rights movement, Jefferson knew all too well that many pro-choice advocates at the time saw abortion as a way to control the poor black population. She witnessed firsthand the efforts of the strong to oppress the weak in the racial battles of the 20th century, and identified abortion as yet another manipulation of power, arguing that “it is unconscionably unfair that the victim selected on which to test the social remedy of expendable lives is the most defenseless member of the human family.” And, in her own words, “as a woman, I am ashamed” – ashamed that abortion was advanced in the name of women’s rights, and that mothers might willingly choose their own interests over the lives of their unborn children.
Jefferson’s influence was compounded by her natural ability as a speaker and debater. She was famously articulate. As Darla St. Martin of the NRLC put it, “She was probably the greatest orator of our movement. In fact, take away the probably.” Jefferson has been credited with changing Ronald Reagan’s stance on abortion; in a letter to her, he wrote “You have made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life, I am grateful to you.” In her numerous appearances as an ambassador of the NRLC and other pro-life groups, Jefferson high standards for pro-life advocates, demonstrating the grace, precision, and confidence that pro-life advocates today should and do strive to emulate. In her dedication, intellectual sophistication, and compelling composure, Jefferson can serve as a model for all of us who work for the cause of which she was one of the greatest champions.