Memories of 'Dr. J.': Mildred Jefferson's pro-life witness

Some called her "Dr. J." not because she could throw down dunks like Julius Erving who played basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers, but because she had a Harvard medical degree, Jefferson was her last name, and she led an historic life devoted to the greatest social movement of our time. Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson, who died during Pro-Life Month, October 2010, at the age of 84, will forever be known for her eloquent defense of human life and for her constant encouragement of young people in the pro-life cause.

I first met Dr. Jefferson in the summer of 1978 as a college intern from Indiana lobbying Congress on behalf of the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition. The summer internship was based in the Washington, D.C. offices of the National Right to Life Committee, of which Dr. Jefferson was a co-founder and for which she was finishing up her last term as president. I remember slipping into her office to chat for several minutes, and being immediately taken by Mildred's uplifting enthusiasm. To my great fortune, our paths crossed many times thereafter.

Dr. Jefferson got to know my mother, a nurse who helped start a pregnancy counseling office in Fort Wayne, Indiana, called Nurses Concerned for Life. After I moved to Massachusetts to work for the Massachusetts Citizens for Life in 1983, Mildred became one of my bosses, so to speak, as a member of the MCFL Board of Directors, another organization that she helped create.

Thinking of Dr. Jefferson makes me recall the many other wonderful "first responders" that I started working with during my tenure at MCFL, many of whom had mobilized to the trenches even before Roe v. Wade was decided. Joining Dr. Jefferson as pro-life leaders in the Commonwealth in the early eighties were such luminaries as Dr. Joseph Stanton, Roy and Ann Scarpato, Phil and Carol Moran, Fran Hogan, Madeline McComish, Marianne and Henry Luthin, Anne Fox, Kathy Healey, John and Pat Day, Linda Kinsey, and Joe Reilly.

Seeing so many eloquent, committed individuals laboring together for a larger endeavor was a thrilling and experience for someone just out of school. Once, after attending a particularly passionate board meeting, I wrote in my journal that "A room full of prophets is a noisy place indeed!"

What Mildred taught me was that the truth has the manifold potential to be spoken with such power and beauty. She had the ability to say things in a way that not only moved the heart but enlightened the mind. And like so many other pro-lifers I know, one question drove her into persistent action: "What can I do today for the cause of life?"

The first wave of blog entries of her friends and admirers responding to the news of Dr. Jefferson's death related some of the stories of her past that I first heard from Mildred herself some 25 years ago. I was driving her home from a speech she had given somewhere in Massachusetts, and on an empty road lit by headlights and starlight, she told me about how as a child she tagged along with the local doctor making his house calls. He revived every patient they visited by pulling medicine from his black bag, and that impressed Mildred so much that she wanted to be a doctor too. It was much later when she learned that the doctor traveled to see only those patients that he knew he could help.

Mildred's calling to be a doctor and her training to be a healer prompted her to renounce a move in 1970 by the American Medical Association to soften its code of ethics on abortion. At one level this had to be a difficult stance to take for someone who had already earned the prestige that accompanies being the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. At another, deeper level, it would not be hard at all for someone adept at breaking the barriers of convention to go where truth asks one to go even if it is unpopular with one's peers. Principle outweighs popularity.

Her principles led Dr. Jefferson to devote her personal gifts to the pro-life movement. But perhaps the greatest legacy of Dr. J. was her commitment to inviting young people to join in the quest. What a privilege for me to have been welcomed in my younger days by Mildred and her allies to the cause of all causes, for without life no other cause is possible.

Someday, God willing, we will have laws that honor all human life, and we will live in a culture that nurtures the respect that every human being deserves. Mildred's death before that day has arrived is an occasion for sadness, for she did not see accomplished what she spent much of her life working towards. But her life, aimed as it was to achieving the better goal, has left its inerasable mark in the annals of achievement. So in her passing, there too is joy. It reminds us to celebrate the virtues she exhibited and the values she stood behind.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director of Policy and Research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.