Tuesday October 19, 2010

1st Black Female Harvard Med Grad and Leading Pro-Life Activist Passes Away

By Peter J. Smith

BOSTON, October 19, 2010 ( – Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a civil rights pioneer who aggressively dedicated her life and talents to defending the rights of unborn children, died Friday at the age of 84 at home.

Anne Fox, President of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, broke the news of Jefferson’s passing to the media. While no cause of death has been specified, Fox said that Jefferson’s health had been declining for the past few weeks.

Jefferson is an important figure for her accomplishments both as a black American and as a woman during the civil rights era. She broke the barriers of her day 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.”

Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, co-chairman of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus, recollected that Jefferson was a “trailblazer” who was “always graceful” and “embodied compassion.”

“Poised and passionate, always focused and extremely devoted, she made history and inspired an entire generation of pro-life leaders,” said Smith.

“It was an honor to work alongside Dr. Jefferson on critical pro-life issues, and I know her legacy and memory will live on in the lives of the unborn children she helped save.”

NRLC noted that Jefferson during her tenure as president stressed the necessity for the pro-life movement to be a broad-based coalition in defense of life.

“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.”

Massachusetts Citizens for Life announced that Jefferson was a former director, and actively involved herself with pro-life groups such as the American Life League, Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund, Black Americans for Life, and others.

“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.”

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