A State apology was necessary, but the mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and families caught up in the CervicalCheck scandal need to know that it will never happen again. Without the tenacity, courage, and dogged determination of those directly caught up in the smear test controversy who fought to get to the truth we would never have seen this outcome.
It was late spring of 2018 when news of a High Court case began to filter out.
A terminally ill woman had been awarded €2.5m in a legal action taken against the HSE after being given incorrect smear test. Her name was Vicky Phelan and she would go on to become the catalyst for what would become a much wider scandal involving so many others.
Vicky, along with around 80 other women, partners, and family members were present in the public gallery of Leinster House when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar officially apologised for the many shattered lives.
Grave expressions peered down through the pane of glass in the public gallery at the Taoiseach as he acknowledged the litany of failures in how cervical screening in our country operated over many years.
There were tears and tissues passed around, one woman pressed a framed picture of a young woman against her chest. Mr Varadkar’s State apology, while welcome, would never have come about without Vicky, Stephen Teap, Lorraine Walsh, and others in the221+ group.
The Government now owes it to them to press ahead with the changes recommended in the reports by Dr Gabriel Scally and Professor Brian MacCraith. If Mr Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris are serious about women’s health, which has been neglected since the foundation of the State, they must now move quickly to restore trust in CervicalCheck.
They must roll out HPV screening, the introduction of which had first been earmarked for September of last year but, dogged by delays, now has a rough start date of the first quarter of 2020. They must begin to repatriate the examination of slides still being carried out mainly in the US. To do this, cytologists must be trained and funding found for labs.
While the Taoiseach’s formal apology was a step forward in the healing process, the empty benches behind him yesterday sent out a message that the Government still does not fully care. Just 28 Fine Gael TDs were present when Mr Varadkar addressed the Dáil.
It was noted by Ms Phelan: “I do think you know that there were fewer politicians in the chamber than we would have liked, I think there could have been a few more there. Everybody has a wife, a mother, or a daughter so that was one thing I did notice there was a shortage. Those who spoke, they spoke about the things that are important to all of us here.”
During her Dáil contribution, Bríd Smith described the heartfelt apology had a “familiar ring” to it.
“It is, once again, an apology to the women of this country whose lives have been unutterably altered by the actions and inactions of this State. While I am happy for the 221+ group, their families and the many others outside these Houses who are receiving this apology, I question what it actually means and the lessons and changes in policy that led to this tragedy.”
From mother and baby homes to the death of Savita Halappanavar, women subjected to symphysiotomies, those dumped in Magdalene laundries, and the current plight of women suffering after undergoing vaginal mesh implants, woman have not fared well when it comes to care from the State.
During his speech, MrVaradkar referenced Ms Phelan’s own words: “I want something good to come out of all of this.”
Much has already been achieved and for that we say thank you Vicky, thank you Lorraine, thank you Stephen, and thank you to all the other women and their families who have put the future of other women ahead of their own suffering.
But now it is time for the State to act and to deliver for the women of Ireland.