Time for us all to take on Vicky’s mantle

An Cailín Rua

HONOUR HER MEMORY Vicky Phelan kayaking on the Potomac River in the US, where she was receiving treatment for her cervical cancer, in April 2021. Pic: Vicky Phelan/Twitter.com.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

The alert flashed up on the phone screen, bringing with it a gut-punch of sorrow; Vicky Phelan, aged 48, had died.
We all knew it would happen eventually, but still, it hit hard. Particularly among the women, where there was palpable grief, but also anger. Anger that another woman had died needlessly, because of other people’s mistakes and negligence, and visceral sorrow that we, as women in Ireland, had lost one of our own, a warrior who fought doggedly and determinedly on our behalf, despite being terminally ill.
Vicky had done exactly what women are told to do. She had been proactive; she had attended her routine smears. Not only had the lab responsible for reading the results made an error, but CervicalCheck delayed informing her and hundreds of other women who eventually received delayed diagnoses of cervical cancer; a disease that is treatable, if caught in time.
In taking legal action, Vicky was presented with a choice. To sign a nondisclosure agreement and settle her medical negligence claim, securing her family’s future and covering her treatment costs. Or refuse to be silenced, take her case to the courts, and risk losing everything – all while terminally ill.
We all know what followed: a court case that laid bare a litany of failures, exposing yet again the callousness and carelessness that have characterised how women are treated in this state.
There was little remorse either – the head of CervicalCheck (incredibly, a woman) was later reported as accusing women of making claims via tribunal for the money. A tribunal, incidentally, that the 221+ campaign group rejected as unfit for purpose.
This was not new news. We had seen the result of this patriarchy and misogyny before in many different guises: Reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. Care for eating disorders. Access to contraception. Thalidomide. Hysterectomies and symphysiotomies performed without consent. The Hepatitis C scandal. Transvaginal mesh devices. Restrictions on home births. The list goes on and on. Hundreds, thousands of women bullied, harmed and dismissed.
And we know that this had not changed. It takes on average nine years to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis in this country. There are frequent, relentless accounts from women whose concerns and wishes are still ignored or dismissed in patriarchal clinical settings around childbirth, and menopause.
Predictably, after Vicky’s death it wasn’t long before the politicians appeared to flood the airwaves with tributes. There is little doubt that their sentiments were genuine; how could you think of her without being impressed by her spirit, determination and directness? As this column is being penned, a Late Late tribute show is in the planning. However, Vicky Phelan famously stated that she didn’t want tributes after her death. She wanted action, and she wanted accountability.
As women in Ireland, we owe her – and her family – an enormous debt of gratitude. But we owe them far more than that. Passive handwringing and sorrowful platitudes will only go so far. Now, like Vicky, it is anger – fury – that should fuel us. Her children should not be without a mother. Neither should the families of Ruth Morrisey, Irene Teap, Elaine Flannery, Emma Mhic Mhathúna, Lynsey Bennett and others be mourning their devastating losses.  For too long in Ireland we have tolerated corruption, incompetency and inadequacy. Along with the other women who faced down the State and the system that tried to gag them, Vicky displayed immense courage, integrity and bravery to take on this fight on behalf of other women in what was an incredible act of solidarity and generosity, and to demand change.
Through no fault her own, Vicky did not see her wishes realised. Four years on, the Patient Safety Bill has yet to be enacted. A full 85 percent of cervical screening is still outsourced abroad.
The very least we can do now is fulfil our obligation to pick up the baton and continue the fight that she carried for so long and advocates like Lorraine Walsh still carry: holding politicians and a cold, patriarchal, paternalistic health system to account, insisting that the voices and concerns of women are no longer routinely dismissed, and ensuring that the other women affected receive redress and an apology, without being forced through the trauma of the court system.
It is time for us to stand up and be counted and insist that this government addresses its shameful record of further abusing women who have already been victimised and damaged by the State and our health system. Then, and only then, can we say we have truly honoured Vicky’s memory.