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25th Jan 2019

The women of Ireland deserve far better than incompetence when it comes to our health

Last week, CervicalCheck campaigner Orla Church passed away.

One of the many women caught up in the CervicalCheck controversy, Church was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015 after being admitted to hospital due to pelvic pain.

She had received two false negative results from smear tests she had undergone in previous years. Both of the test results showed no abnormalities.

Orla is one of the 221 women in Ireland who were affected by last year’s CervicalCheck scandal. She was the 21st woman to die following the controversy.

After the scandal came an apology on behalf of the HSE, an attempt to understand why the programme had failed so miserably, and a significant loss of trust in the state when it comes to women’s health.

It also led to the Scally report, a review which found “huge failings” in the screening programme and asked the question that a lot of us had been wondering for a long time: “Why does this always happen to women?”

Not even a year later and CervicalCheck continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past few weeks, reports of six month waits for results have emerged, 6,000 smears have expired due to a “confusion” between labs, and an enormous backlog in the programme has since been described as a separate issue entirely.

In the past, Irish women were locked up in laundries for having sex before marriage. Our children were taken from us, we were beaten, we were outcast.

We were told that our health didn’t matter as much as the life growing inside of us did. We were denied medical procedures, sent away and eventually pulled back, warned not to speak about what choices we had made for ourselves, our families, and our health.

In the present, things are different. Or at least, they’re not exactly the same.

Last year, we repealed the eighth amendment. All of a sudden, we could decide whether motherhood was or wasn’t for us. And if it was, we could decide when it happened, where it happened, and what we wanted to do if we ended up experiencing any complications.

It seemed that decades of obstructing and mismanaging women’s health had finally come to an end.

Well, except in cases where patients experiencing fatal foetal abnormalities are being told in Irish hospitals to wait four weeks to check if they’d have a spontaneous miscarriage. 

Or where over 220 patients are directly affected by cervical screening programme failures – the fall out of which continues to be felt across the country as more patients go on waiting months for smear test results and more people continue to die.

The women of Ireland are not being directly targeted anymore.

There isn’t some benevolent force at work to take us down, attack our freedom, and ruin our health. We aren’t being harangued in public by priests, bishops, and all the other men who thought that they had a right to tell us what we could and couldn’t do.

We’re not dealing with direct attacks, but we are dealing with incompetence – particularly in the health sector – and it really isn’t good enough.

The women of Ireland deserve better than repeated smear tests, false negative results, and the fear that getting the all-clear might not mean very much at all.

We deserve better than an ever-dwindling trust in our health service, fault after fault after fault, and a programme that lately seems to be causing more heartache and hardship than good.

We deserve better than feeling like we don’t matter.

Orla Church’s funeral took place this week in Dublin. She was remembered as a strong, intelligent, forceful woman who campaigned to improve health services for women across Ireland.

She did all that she could – along with the other campaigners like Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna who worked tirelessly – to hold the government and the health service accountable, and to make sure that this never happens again.

But there is only so much that they can – and should be expected to – do.