There came a moment in Vicky Phelan’s admirable campaign to expose the CervicalCheck scandal in 2018 when, following a legal settlement, she spoke outside the High Court in Dublin. “The women of Ireland can no longer put their trust in the CervicalCheck programme,” she said. “Mistakes can and do happen but the conduct of CervicalCheck and the HSE in my case, and the case of at least 10 other women we know about, is unforgivable.” It’s the sort of scene that could play as a punch-the-air victory in a docudrama. However, in the context of Sasha King’s commendably unsentimental portrait of the campaigner, it’s part of a bigger story.
Many will be familiar with the grim details pertaining to Phelan’s diagnosis. Following the discovery that her smear test results were incorrect, the Kilkenny woman was, aged 43, told to get her affairs in order. She had been diagnosed with cervical cancer years after a smear test detected “no abnormality”. She could have benefited from earlier intervention. Along with many others.
King’s documentary chronicles the murky world of laboratory testing and tenders in the US, where companies can disappear or move on, while their shoddy, bottom-line work can ruin or end lives. Following on from her High Court case, Phelan refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement, vowing instead to fight on for those impacted by incorrect smear test results. Subsequently, 208 women tested between 2008 and 2018 were identified among those for whom a “screening test could have provided a different result or a warning of increased risk or evidence of developing cancer”. Of those 208 women, 162 had not been alerted about earlier audits revealing errors affecting their results.
The film — which was voted Best Irish Documentary by the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival — includes contributions from other affected women, Dr Gabriel Scally, oncologists and Phelan’s legal representative Cian O’Carroll.
It remains the steely portrait that its subject deserves.
Every campaign win is hard fought and bittersweet. In October 2019 Leo Varadkar, then taoiseach, offered a State apology to the women affected. Phelan was in the Dáil representing such campaigners as Emma Mhic Mhathúna. Emma has since died. Phelan is currently undergoing another punishing round of chemotherapy.