Uncomfortable parallels with Brigid McCole case must unsettle Fine Gael

Philomena Canning

Two words that haunted Fine Gael for many years were uttered in the Dáil yesterday by Solidary TD Ruth Coppinger. Brigid McCole.

This is the name of a woman who died in 1996 as a result of being poisoned by the State with infected blood. She sued and was hounded into a settlement on her deathbed by a State using the full power of its legal and financial muscle. Michael Noonan was minister for health at the time. He and Fine Gael paid a heavy price when the full details of the case emerged in the weeks and months after Mrs McCole’s death.

Ms Coppinger invoked the McCole case when she referred to what Philomena Canning is currently undergoing. Ms Canning is terminally ill with cancer. She wants the HSE to settle the action she brought against it for wrongfully suspending her from her midwifery practice in 2014.

Four years ago a settlement was offered, but her fidelity to midwifery prompted her to reject it in preference to an open court hearing of the issues which led to her wrongful dismissal. She believes the most profound issues of safety are at issue.

Now, however, she is critically ill and requires money to access the drug Pembro. Those afflicted with cervical cancer now have access to the drug on the public health system but Ms Canning is suffering from ovarian cancer, so she does not. She wants a settlement to enhance her chances of prolonging her life.

“Her case has been dragged and drawn out,” Ms Coppinger said. “The words Brigid McCole have haunted Fine Gael for decades. Do not let Philomena Canning become another shameful episode with the Government.”

Ms Coppinger’s colleague Brid Smith echoed the sentiments: “She [Ms Canning] now finds herself facing a vindictive HSE, refusing to deal with her… [I’m] asking you to show compassion to a woman whose life was made of compassion.”

Leanne Ezklarzewicz and her daughter Gaia , 6 months, from Newtown Mount Kennedy, were among the crowd calling on the minister for health to intervene immediately and instruct the HSE to settle its case with independent midwife Philomena Canning. Picture: Moya Nolan
Leanne Ezklarzewicz and her daughter Gaia , 6 months, from Newtown Mount Kennedy, were among the crowd calling on the minister for health to intervene immediately and instruct the HSE to settle its case with independent midwife Philomena Canning. Picture: Moya Nolan

Both TDs had earlier attended a rally at the gates of Leinster House which was dubbed both a protest and a celebration of Ms Canning’s career as a midwife.

Many among the crowd who attended had had their children delivered by Ms Canning, who was the foremost independent midwife specialising in homebirths prior to her suspension by the HSE in 2014.

Replying to Ms Coppinger, Ms Smith and Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly, the Taoiseach said he was “sorry to hear that Philomena Canning was so unwell”.

Back in 2015, when he was minister for health, Mr Varadkar met Ms Canning about her travails and afterwards urged the HSE to expedite any inquiry into her practice.

Yesterday, he said it was his understanding that a settlement had been offered. That is correct as far as it goes. However, Ms Canning has requested one proviso — that she be given access to Pembro.

At the time of going to print, she had not received a response from the HSE.

Even at this stage, in dealing with somebody who is not just terminally ill, but who has suffered a grave injustice by the health body, somebody appears to be playing hardball, as if it was 1996 all over again.

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