Numerous pro-life groups commented on Maya Angelou's passing last week. Most emphasized her courage in rejecting abortion when she became pregnant at the age of 16. But the Radiance Foundation pointed out that Angelou did not speak out for other children to have the same chance at life. In fact, she fundraised for Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion organization.
Secular Pro-Life stayed silent; we generally don't comment on celebrity deaths. That said, I agree with the Radiance Foundation that it's inappropriate to "claim" Angelou for the pro-life movement.
At the same time, I kind of understand the impulse of pro-life groups who assumed, or wanted to believe, that Angelou was pro-life. A woman grows up in poverty in the Jim Crow South, chooses life for her child under dire circumstances, and later becomes a celebrated author, civil rights activist, and household name. Who wouldn't find that inspiring?
So let's remember Angelou for her many accomplishments. But if you're looking for someone who made a contribution to the civil rights movement and the pro-life movement, you don't need to twist the facts to invent one in Angelou. The woman you're looking for is Dr. Mildred Jefferson.
Jefferson (1926-2010) grew up in Texas. She was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School—in 1951, when her home state remained segregated by law. She then became a surgeon.
But when the abortion movement emerged, Dr. Jefferson devoted her time and effort to opposing it. Two years after Roe, she took office as the president of the National Right to Life Committee, and held that position for three terms. After that, she continued her involvement in the pro-life movement, helping NRLC form its political action committee and working to elect pro-life political candidates regardless of party.
Dr. Jefferson connected her personal struggles to larger principles of social justice. In her own words: "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."