First Black female Harvard Med grad and leading pro-life activist dies

by Peter J. Smith

BOSTON (NNPA)—Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a civil rights pioneer who aggressively dedicated her life and talents to defending the rights of unborn children, has died at age 84.

Anne Fox, the president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said Jefferson died Oct. 15 in Cambridge. She says Jefferson recently became ill.


Jefferson was an important figure for her accomplishments both as a Black American and as a woman during the civil rights era. She broke barriers when in 1951 she became the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School and then the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital. She later became the first female doctor at Boston University Medical Center.

But a turning point in Jefferson’s career from accomplished surgeon to pro-life leader came when the American Medical Association in 1970 resolved that member physicians could perform abortions ethically in states where the procedure was legal. According to the Boston Globe, the 2004 book African-American Lives said that this profoundly disturbed Jefferson, who saw the AMA’s position as an abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath which admonishes doctors to “do no harm.” Jefferson would lend her mind and voice to advocating the pro-life cause with exceptional passion, intelligence, and rhetorical excellence.

These gifts could be seen in her famous explanation to the American Feminist magazine in 2003 for why she dedicated herself to the fight for the right to life.

“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,” she said.

Jefferson was a co-founder of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), and served as vice-chairman of NRLC’s board in 1973, then as chairman. She held the post of president from 1975 – 1978, providing leadership in those critical years for the pro-life movement, as it struggled to coalesce into an effective political force in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

“The right-to-life movement has lost a champion and a pioneer. And we have lost a dear friend,” said Darla St. Martin, NRLC co-Executive Director, in a statement. “Mildred Jefferson was a valued colleague in our fight for the most vulnerable members of our society and she will be greatly missed.”

“We come together from all parts of our land,” Jefferson wrote in the 1977 NRLC convention journal. “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.”

Jefferson was a former director, and actively involved with the American Life League, Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund and Black Americans for Life.

“Mildred Jefferson used every forum available to educate America and encourage people of all ages to become active in the right-to-life movement,” said NRLC’s St. Martin. “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.”

(Special to the NNPA from The Bulletin)

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