When Black History Month is observed each February, news stories often highlight African American women who have made history in different ways — women like civil rights activist Rosa Parks, astronaut Mae Jemison and Olympian Wilma Rudolph. Yet one woman whose name is seldom mentioned led a life that inspired all who encountered her, and her dynamic personality and rhetorical brilliance changed the mind of a president of the United States on one of the most contentious issues of the day. Her name was Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson.
Born in east Texas in 1927, Jefferson was the only child of a schoolteacher and a Methodist minister. Her interest in medicine was sparked by early encounters with the local doctor, who made house calls in a horsedrawn carriage. He permitted Millie, as she was known, to accompany him on some of his visits and encouraged her to keep up with her studies.
Jefferson was an academic prodigy, graduating from her local segregated high school at age 15. She later went on to become the first African American woman to be accepted to Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1951. Her professional accomplishments didn’t end there; Jefferson also became the first woman of any race to complete a surgical rotation at Boston City Hospital and the first female surgeon at the Boston University Medical Center.
Jefferson’s involvement in pro-life work began in the late 1960s but kicked into high gear in 1970, when a fellow doctor called her with a question. The local chapter of the American Medical Association was preparing a resolution in favor of abortion rights; would she sign a petition against the resolution? That question led Jefferson to join the burgeoning movement to oppose abortion laws. She helped found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which was incorporated four days after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and co-founded the National Right to Life Committee, serving as its president for three terms (1975-1978).
While NRLC president, she gave remarks at the 94th Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, which was hosted in Boston in 1976.
“Abortion on demand is not merely ‘the right to choose,’” she said. “The demand is ‘the right to choose’ to kill an unborn child and pay some doctor to do it. In a sound society, there are choices which we must agree not to make and not to allow.”
A 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer feature on Dr. Jefferson noted that the plain-talking Texan “didn’t get where she was by mincing words.” The sexism and racism she had endured gave her a boldness of spirit to — in today’s parlance — “speak truth to power,” and her work as a doctor gave her particular authority.
“I became a physician in order to save lives, not to destroy them,” Jefferson said in a 1978 interview. “I will not accept the proposition that the doctor should relinquish the role of healer to become the new social executioner.”
Abortion was particularly distressing to her as an African American woman. Given that women of color aborted at higher rates than white women, she saw racist motives in the push to publicly fund abortion, which she called a “class war against the poor and genocide against blacks.”
Jefferson personified the diversity of the pro-life movement and was quick to correct anyone who tried to portray it as being led largely by men. “The pro-life movement is the people’s movement,” she said. “We come rich and poor, proud and plain, religious and agnostic, politically committed and independent. We can only agree on our respect for life and our determination to defend the right to life.”
Dr. Jefferson received numerous awards and multiple honorary degrees for her tireless defense of the unborn — including an honorary doctoral degree in humanities from the College of the Holy Cross, which she received alongside St. Teresa of Calcutta in 1976.
But she was most proud of moments in which her persuasion, intellect and eloquence were able to change hearts and minds.
One of Dr. Jefferson’s converts wrote her after seeing her on a television panel in 1972:
“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.”
These heartfelt words were written by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. His presidency would later shape the judiciary and legislative landscape for years to come.
Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson died Oct. 15, 2010, at age 84, leaving behind a legacy of caring not just “for one’s own family, but for the whole family of man.”
Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney who currently serves as the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as at the DeNicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.