Mildred Fay Jefferson was born in Pittsburg, Texas, and was raised in Carthage, Texas. She was the only child of Millard F. Jefferson, a Methodist minister, and Guthrie Jefferson, a school teacher. As a young girl, Mildred used to follow the town doctor as he went on his rounds in his horse and buggy and ask him questions about what he was doing. He always took the time to answer her, and when she told him she would like to become a doctor like him, he replied, “if that’s what you want to do, you just go right ahead.”
Mildred graduated from the segregated public high school in Carthage at age 15; she then went on to Texas College, a historically black school in Tyler, Texas, affiliated with the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. She graduated at age 18, which was too young for her to enter medical school, and so she went to Tufts University and earned a master’s degree in biology. She then went to Harvard Medical School and in 1951 became the first African-American woman to graduate from there. She went on to become the first woman to intern at Boston City Hospital, the first female surgeon at the Boston University Medical Center, the first woman admitted to the Boston Surgical Society, and a professor of surgery at Boston University Medical School. Over her career, she was awarded 28 honorary degrees.
Coming from the segregated South in an era of intense racism, Dr. Jefferson’s accomplishments as a pioneer for women and blacks in medicine would be cause enough to celebrate her life. Yet today she is most remembered for her tireless work opposing abortion, both as a physician in the Hippocratic tradition and as a Christian.
Opposition to Abortion
In 1970, the American Medical Association decided that it was ethical for physicians to perform abortions in jurisdictions where they were legal. Dr. Jefferson saw this as a complete travesty: simultaneously a violation of the Hippocratic Oath and of Judeo-Christian ethics. She immediately began working for the pro-life cause in Massachusetts. Among other things, she became a co-founder of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which quickly affiliated with the National Right to Life Committee. Dr. Jefferson was appointed to National Right to Life’s board in 1971 as the representative of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
Late in 1972, WGBH, the public television station in Boston, featured Dr. Jefferson in an episode of their series “The Advocates” dealing with the abortion issue. The program aired nationwide. Dr. Jefferson was a very eloquent speaker, with impeccable logic and a winsome presentation that took full advantage of the fact that she was both a physician and a woman. Her presentation was so effective that it changed many Americans’ minds about abortion. To take just one example, she received a letter from a politician that read in part:
I hope you won’t mind my writing to you, but I had to tell you how truly great you were in your testimony on the “Advocates” program regarding abortion. Yours was the most clear-cut exposition on this problem that I have ever heard. . . . Several years ago I was faced with the issue of whether to sign a California abortion bill. . . . I must confess to never having given the matter of abortion any serious thought until that time. No other issue since I have been in office has caused me to do so much study and soul-searching. . . . I wish I could have heard your views before our legislation was passed. You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life. I’m grateful to you.
It was signed, Ronald Reagan.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court struck down all restrictions on abortion nationally in its Roe v. Wade decision. This led Dr. Jefferson to redouble her efforts in the pro-life cause. In June of that year, she became vice-chair of the board of National Right to Life; the following year, she was the board’s chair, and the year after she became president of the organization, a post she held from 1975 to 1978. This made her the most prominent pro-life spokesperson in the country.
Even after she left her position at National Right to Life, she continued to be a powerful advocate for the movement. Rep. Henry Hyde, himself an eloquent pro-life champion, once commented that the best thing the pro-life community could do to advance their cause would be to raise the money to pay Dr. Jefferson to travel the country advocating for the unborn full-time.
Dr. Jefferson’s Views in Her Own Words
Dr. Jefferson understood the fight against abortion as a moral imperative:
I’m opposed to abortion as a doctor and also because I know it is morally wrong. An individual never has the private right to choose to kill for whatever reasons, be they whim, convenience or compulsion. Because I know abortion is wrong, I will use every means available for free people in a free country to see that it is not perpetuated.
She also recognized that it raised important ethical questions for the medical profession:
The doctor who willingly accepts destroying life will have no grounds on which to object if the state should compel that doctor to destroy life.
Even more, she recognized that abortion on demand would turn into a demand that doctors perform abortions regardless of their personal convictions. Put differently, conscience rights for medical professionals would disappear and they would be forced to obey the state rather than their faith or their conscience. And if the state could demand this of doctors, it could demand it of anyone. Abortion was thus a step toward totalitarianism:
It’s too late for doctors to stay in that comfortable environment. Doctors must exert their rights and obligations or we will be the first slaves of the state and you [i.e. the general public] will soon join us.
Dr. Jefferson foresaw the coming attacks against conscience rights and the right to dissent from political orthodoxy, and correctly anticipated that the insistence that medical professionals such as pharmacists act in ways that violated their conscience would lead inevitably to similar demands being placed on other, non-medical professions.
Particularly in the wake of Nazi Germany’s War on the Weak, Dr. Jefferson recognized that abortion (along with forced sterilization) was the tool of choice for eugenicists. Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist, and Planned Parenthood, the organization she founded, was established to promote eugenics through providing abortions. Dr. Jefferson was very alarmed by the trajectory that abortion would inevitably lead to:
I became a physician in order to help save lives. I am at once a physician, a citizen, and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow the 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.
Once again, Dr. Jefferson was correct. Down syndrome, to take just one example, is disappearing in America largely because babies with Down syndrome are being killed before they are born. The same is true of babies with other identifiable disabilities. Eugenics is back, and abortion continues to be the primary means of accomplishing it.
Dr. Jefferson recognized that if abortion was going to end, political action would be needed. Due to her influence, National Right to Life established a PAC that helped elect pro-life candidates to political office, and she personally testified before Congress about the facts of abortion. She also urged people from all walks of life to be involved in the pro-life cause, recognizing that it was an issue not just for women:
She had a particular interest in educating the youth and recruiting them into the movement:
If I had my way, there would be a pro-life group on every college campus here in the United States and in its territories. . . . I hope that wherever you [students] have a department of women’s studies or black studies that you will have a corresponding pro-life movement.
How much of a direct impact she had on students is hard to measure, though it is worth noting that millennials are the most pro-life generation since Roe v. Wade.
Dr. Jefferson died in 2010, but the movement she helped lead continues on, stronger than ever. Her credibility as an African-American female physician, her impressive rhetorical abilities, and her organizational and political skills laid a solid foundation on which the pro-life movement is built.
“Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson,” Culture of Life Studies Program newsletter, American Life League, February 6, 2016.
Rebekah Herbert, “Heroine of human dignity: Mildred Fay Jefferson,” MercatorNet, December 13, 2010.
“History of National Right to Life,” National Right to Life.
“Mildred Fay Jefferson Quotes,” AZ Quotes.
“Trailblazer: Dr. Mildred Jefferson,” The Radiance Foundation, posted on YouTube February 10, 2014.
Image courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum via Wikipedia.