The Reproductive Health Award 2011 Winner is Dr. Mary Conley!
Dr. Mary Conley spent her career as a family doctor, teacher, abortion provider and pro-choice activist. Hailing from New Brunswick, she graduated with an honors degree from UNB and an MD from UBC. She received her training for performing abortions while interning at the Ottawa Civic Hospital In 1975.
On moving to Victoria, Dr. Conley joined the Birth Control Clinic and served as their medical advisor for eight years. This involved teaching all the interns, individually, about birth control methods—a subject not offered at medical school. She imported cervical caps from Britain and did research as to their effectiveness, and her results were presented to the 1979 Planned Parenthood Conference in Vancouver. Throughout her career, she continued to teach contraception and women’s health to the medical staff and community groups. In 1997, identified by her colleagues as an exceptional teacher, she received an award from UBC.
Dr. Conley was also a member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a peace organization which won the Nobel Prize in 1984. With the necessity for political involvement in women’s health issues developing primacy, she joined the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, and became one of the speakers at their annual march. When the hospital board was taken over by the pro-life society, she went door-to-door signing up people to vote in the elections. She wrote letters to the paper and gave interviews to the media. Because of her dedication, she was named an Honorary Director of CARAL. The pro-choice groups in Victoria came together as a result of the hospital takeover, and Dr. Conley became the spokesperson for the coalition, continuing in this position until she retired.
In the beginning, she referred her abortion patients to gynecologists, but it became evident that these patients were scorned by some of the hospital staff. So, to protect them, she did her own procedures. In 1980, she trained with Dr. Morgentaler in Montreal, the first doctor outside Quebec to do so. She worked for his campaign in Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria, and was a speaker at the first meeting of the Coalition for Abortion Clinics in Vancouver.
After the Supreme Court threw out the abortion law, it became a turbulent time for abortion providers. The government attempted to make a new law; it was defeated by the Senate. When Premier Vander Zalm tried to restrict abortion access, Dr. Conley announced publically the opening of her office for the procedure. Despite a continual barrage of hate mail, death threats and picketers, and the shooting of a number of Canadian doctors including Dr. Romalis in Vancouver, Dr. Conley continued her work, and, as well, her radio, TV and newspaper interviews. In this atmosphere of fear, many of the abortion providers on Vancouver Island quit. The result was that patients from all over the island, the Gulf Islands and beyond were referred to Dr. Conley, and eventually, she was doing over 90% of all abortions done in Victoria. She was also tireless in her lobbying for RU486.
In 1996 she won a Woman of Distinction Award for voluntary service to the community. She is now retired, and has taken up painting with great passion. She lives with her artist husband in Victoria, B.C.