Women vs State: a hard quest for jus­tice

KIM BIELENBERG

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

As she re­lied on the kind­ness of strangers, her friends and fam­ily to pay for her can­cer treat­ment in re­cent weeks, Vicky Phe­lan had good rea­son to be scan­dalised by the be­hav­iour of the State. The pow­ers that be had a duty of care to look af­ter the Lim­er­ick mother when a smear test failed to pick up the ini­tial signs of cer­vi­cal can­cer.

Three years af­ter her test, she was fi­nally di­ag­nosed with the ill­ness.

But it took another three years be­fore any­body took the trou­ble to tell her that her test had shown a false neg­a­tive.

As she put it her­self, keep­ing the in­for­ma­tion from her was an “ap­palling breach of trust”.

As if her strug­gle with can­cer, which is now ter­mi­nal, was not tough enough, Vicky had to go to the courts — and face the might of the State — to seek re­dress. And like all too many women in the re­cent past, it could be ar­gued that she was treated like an enemy of the State, rather than as a cit­i­zen de­serv­ing com­pas­sion and re­spect.

She had to find the funds her­self for the ex­pen­sive can­cer drugs that she is tak­ing as part of a clin­i­cal trial. They cost €8,500 per dose.

The story of the ter­mi­nally ill Lim­er­ick woman, who in­sisted on lift­ing the lid on the ap­palling in­com­pe­tence in our health ser­vice, is a pro­file in courage and com­po­sure in the face of enor­mous pres­sure.

It re­peats a pat­tern of se­crecy, ob­fus­ca­tion and down­right neg­li­gence among those in au­thor­ity that is all too fa­mil­iar to women who deal with the health ser­vice, and some other State agen­cies.

It harks back to the days of Brigid McCole, the 54-year-old Done­gal woman who died in St Vincent’s Hos­pi­tal in Dublin in Oc­to­ber 1996 af­ter tak­ing on the State af­ter she was one of thou­sands of women in­fected with con­tam­i­nated blood prod­ucts.

At the time, the State was de­ter­mined to de­fend it­self — and put pres­sure on vic­tims who dared to seek jus­tice.

As with the case of Vicky Phe­lan, the case of McCole and hun­dreds of other women ex­posed to in­fected blood prod­ucts re­vealed a cul­ture of keep­ing things quiet.

The scan­dal in­volved Anti-D, a blood prod­uct that was mainly given to preg­nant women with a par­tic­u­lar blood group whose ba­bies were at risk of de­vel­op­ing a blood dis­or­der dis­ease.

The scan­dal came to pub­lic at­ten­tion in 1994 when it emerged that the Blood Trans­fu­sion Ser­vice Board (BTSB) had failed to pre­vent the use of blood do­nated dur­ing the mid-1970s by a woman who was known to have jaun­dice. Although the

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