There are few who can discuss abortion from as many perspectives as those held by Mildred Jefferson—the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School and a lifelong pro-life activist, who passed away on October 15 at age 84.
She could talk about it as a doctor. She could talk about it as a woman. And, she could talk about it as a black woman.
Born to a Methodist minister in east Texas, Jefferson earned degrees from Texas College and Tufts University before graduating from Harvard in 1951. A surgical internship at Boston City Hospital eventually led to another trailblazing accomplishment: becoming the first female doctor at the former Boston University Medical Center.
Jefferson's involvement in the pro-life movement was prompted in the 1970s by a resolution passed by the American Medical Association allowing members to perform abortions if the procedure was legal in their states. She helped to found the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and served as its president for three years, along with serving in several other pro-life groups.
Darla St. Martin of the NRLC told New York Times reporter Dennis Hevesi that no one spoke for the pro-life movement better than Jefferson: "She probably was the greatest orator of our movement. In fact, take away the probably."
Hevesi also recollects Jefferson's 1981 testimony before Congress in favor of a bill that would have turned abortion into legal murder:
Dr. Jefferson, a surgeon, was speaking in support of a bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois, that sought to declare that human life "shall be deemed to exist from conception." Had it passed, it would have allowed states to prosecute abortion as murder … "With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family," Dr. Jefferson continued to testify, "the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn."
Dr. Jefferson believes physicians have turned away from the Hippocratic tradition they've honored for 2,000 years. "I'm not willing to accept that role. People who arrange and provide abortions don't realize the wreckage they leave behind, the depression."
In that article, Jefferson also talked about abortion from the perspective of a black woman—a demographic overrepresented in the number of abortions performed (one CDC survey reports that African American women have abortions at three times the rate of white women and almost twice the rate of other racial groups). Wrote the Press:
The first black woman to be graduated from Harvard Medical School considers legal abortion most harmful to poor black women. "Blacks suffer more from abortion because what looks like help is actually striking against them. Blacks are fewer. They will disappear sooner," said Dr. Mildred Jefferson ….
Jefferson spoke from all of her perspectives to fight abortion. Boston Globe reporter Kathleen Burge picked up on a quote from a 2003 profile in the magazine American Feminist—one that sums up the legacy of a woman who called the pro-life movement "second only to the abolitionist movement in the profound change it has brought about in American thinking":
"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."