". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Pro-Life Women Physicians Show a Path Forward for Life

February 27, 2024

Much is made, and rightly so, of the 19th century suffragettes who worked to obtain the right to vote for women and other things we now take for granted. What is usually unreported is that such women as Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull were also adamantly against abortion. They were joined by a now-largely unnoticed cadre of women physicians, courageous pioneers in the field of medicine whose allegiance to the cause of life merits greater attention.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman physician in the history of the United States. Accepted by a New York medical school, she graduated in 1849 and faced predictable prejudice from her male colleagues. Yet nothing deterred her from pursuing what became a historic career in medicine, both in the U.S. and Europe.

Blackwell came from a family of abolitionists and, as a doctor, advanced such then unpopular causes as medical hygiene and preventive medicine. She and her sister, also a physician, trained women to be nurses for service on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. But Blackwell was more than a brave and persistent woman committed to advancing human health and opening another door for her gender.

Her commitment to medicine was informed largely by her horror at women who worked as abortionists. After reading an article about a New York abortionist named “Madame Restell,” Blackwell wrote in her diary, “The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. I finally determined to do what I could do ‘to redeem the hells,’ and especially the one form of hell (abortion) thus forced upon my notice.”

Dr. Blackwell was not alone. Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones (1828-1908) “was the first person in America to propose and perform a total hysterectomy for myoma (a tumor of muscle tissue) of the uterus.” Fiercely pro-life, in 1894 she published an article titled simply, “Criminal Abortion,” in a then-premier medical journal. “Abortion,” she wrote, “induced at any time, or for any purpose except for the mother’s welfare, or for the preservation of the life of the fetus, is a crime and a murder. This foul taking off has been the cause of the destruction of an uncounted number of children; and has, in unnumbered instances, resulted in the death or ill health of the mother.”

In a condescending article about Jones, physician and University of Michigan professor Howard Markel writes, “Despite the advancements she made on behalf of women’s health, Mary Amanda Dixon Jones adopted an anti-abortion stance that doesn’t comport with modern medicine.” In one sense, Markel is correct: today’s surgical abortions usually are performed in operatories with the least modicum of sanitation. But as they always have, abortions have but one devastating result: the destruction of the little one in the womb.

More recently, these forerunners of the pro-life movement were joined by Mildred Jefferson (1927-2010), who “was not only the first African American woman graduate of Harvard Medical School (in 1951), she was also the first woman employed as a general surgeon at Boston University Medical Center.” Active in many pro-life organizations, Dr. Jefferson was outspoken in her defense of life.

That defense made a historic difference when, one day in 1972, a California politician watched Dr. Jefferson in a national television interview. “No other issue since I have been in office has caused me to do so much study and soul-searching,” Ronald Reagan wrote her. “You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of human life. I’m grateful to you.”

In a 2003 interview, Dr. Jefferson said, “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.”

These women deserve to be remembered not only because of their groundbreaking roles as women physicians but as pro-life champions. Unwilling to accede to whatever the orthodoxies of their day demanded, they stood for human dignity from conception until natural death. Moral courage is an undervalued virtue — and these three women had it deeply within themselves. May we learn from those who have gone before to nurture it within ourselves as our times darken and as our country’s needs only grow.

Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.