Often it can seem a deep-seated problem is too impossible to resolve, too broken to fix, and a single voice can’t make an impact.
Dr. Mildred Jefferson was a testament to the power one voice can have to address a problem that sometimes seems impossible to resolve and beyond our abilities to repair.
In the few years before the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973, abortion activists were blitzing state legislatures, convincing several of the merits of taking away the right to life of unborn children. Even Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, was not immune to this advocacy. At first, very few voices rose in defense of the rights of the unborn. The American Medical Association once was dedicated to protecting the rights of unborn children and protecting medical professionals from being turned into merchants of death. Yet even they were undermined by the movement to embrace abortion, and in 1970, they endorsed the policy of abortion-on-demand.
When pro-abortion forces came to Massachusetts in earnest in 1970 to change state laws there, one doctor took a different path: Dr. Mildred Jefferson.
By 1970 Dr. Jefferson already had a brilliant history of firsts. Born and raised in small town Texas, Dr. Jefferson always wanted to be a doctor, but being a Black woman in a town with segregated schools in the 1940s wasn’t exactly an easy path to medical school. That didn’t even begin to hold her back, however.
Dr. Jefferson was only 15 when she graduated high school and went on to a small historically-Black college, Texas College. She was too young to pursue medical school after graduating from Texas College, so she bided her time by working on her master’s degree from Tufts University, way up in Massachusetts. It was a short trip from there to her next destination in nearby Cambridge.
In a truly momentous first, Dr. Jefferson became the first Black women to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Then she achieved another one, becoming the first female intern at Boston City Hospital, and another one when she became the first female surgeon at Boston University Medical Center.
The sky was her limit. She could have spent the rest of her life basking in the glow of her achievements, perhaps becoming a universally-celebrated historical figure for breaking down so many racial and gender barriers. History, however, set a different path before her.
Appalled by the idea that a doctor should engage in taking human life, Dr. Jefferson accomplished another first, helping to officially found the prolife movement in Massachusetts under the name Massachusetts Citizens for Life. She went on to be a founding member of the National Right to Life Committee, a chair of their board in 1974, and president of the organization from 1975 to 1978.
At the beginning of the prolife movement, Dr. Jefferson was our national spokesperson. She was not just an eloquent speaker, but impactful on her listeners. One such listener was that former California governor who legalized abortion in his state, Ronald Reagan. After seeing Dr. Jefferson speak about the issue, he wrote a note thanking her. Part of the note read, “I wish I could have heard your views before our legislation was passed. You made it irrefutably clear than an abortion is the taking of a human life. I’m grateful to you.”
Ronald Reagan was the first prolife president since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973. Helped by the persuasive words of Dr. Jefferson, he went on to galvanize the prolife movement at a time when most of the learned minds and voices of the day were still predicting that prolifers would gradually vanish from America. We’re still here, and our voices are louder than ever.
For Dr. Jefferson, being a doctor was inseparable from being prolife. She once said, “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.”
Abortion has not yet ended; it still ravages communities in America. Dr. Jefferson’s mission has yet to be achieved. Yet, there is progress: an increase in prolife protections at the state level, decisions chipping away at Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, and an abortion rate in decline for nearly 30 years.
Sadly, Dr. Jefferson died in 2010, before she was able to see Roe v. Wade reversed. At her death she was still dedicated to the prolife movement, serving on the board of the National Right to Life Committee. Though she began her career as a physician saving individual patients, she will be most remembered as a person who helped lay the foundation for saving millions of lives.
Just one voice can indeed change the world around them and the course of history.