Ruth Morrissey obituary: Courageous campaigner in cervical smear scandal

Court case against State became precedent for legal challenges taken by other women

Ruth Morrissey encouraged women to still go for smear tests, noting that even though the testing system had failed her, it saves many lives. Photograph: Collins Courts

Ruth Morrissey encouraged women to still go for smear tests, noting that even though the testing system had failed her, it saves many lives. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Born: June 29th, 1981

Died: July 19th, 2020

Ruth Morrissey, the courageous campaigner for justice for women in the cervical cancer screening debacle, has died at the age of 39 in Milford hospice in Limerick. Morrissey first became a public figure when, in July 2018, she relinquished her anonymity and was photographed outside the High Court when the case she and her husband, Paul, had taken against the Health Service Executive and two pathology laboratories following inaccurate smear tests went to trial.

Morrissey was first diagnosed with and treated for cancer in 2014 but she didn’t find out until 2018 – following media reports – that she was one of the women whose smear tests in 2009 and 2012 were found to be falsely negative for cervical cancer in a 2014 review of smear tests taken under the CervicalCheck screening programme. Morrissey’s cervical cancer returned in 2017, followed by a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2018.

Ruth Morrissey decided to look for justice through the courts when, in April 2018, fellow campaigner Vicky Phelan settled her own legal case for €2.5 million against the State for inaccuracies in her smear tests carried out by the CervicalCheck screening programme.

In spite of assurances from the then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in May 2018 that no other woman caught up in the CervicalCheck cancer screening scandal would have to seek compensation through the courts, Ruth and Paul Morrissey’s High Court case against the State became a test case as the decisions taken would form a legal precedent for future legal challenges taken by other women caught up in the controversy. The Morrisseys attended court on many of the 36 days of the trial in spite of Ruth’s ill health.

In the following two years, Morrissey would, like Vicky Phelan, Lorraine Walsh, the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna and Stephen Teap (whose wife Irene died of cervical cancer in July 2017), become a household name, representing women with cancer whose smear tests were false negatives, resulting in them not receiving treatment for cervical cancer at an earlier stage in the disease.

As well as the issue of the false negative smear tests themselves, the affected women – many of whom had since developed cervical cancer – hadn’t been informed about the inaccuracies discovered in the 2014 review.

Morrissey, one of eight children born to Seán and Mary Moloney in Co Limerick, went to the Presentation College in Limerick, after which she did a diploma in information technology at Limerick Senior College. From 2001, she worked with United Parcel Services, and from 2014 had the role of customer solutions supervisor. She married Paul Morrissey in 2008 and their daughter, Libby, was born in July 2011.

Nominated as a “European protégé candidate” by her workplace, Morrissey had started a remote degree course in management and leadership at the University of Nottingham when her health started to seriously decline.

In May 2019, the Morrisseys won the case proving the State was responsible for running the CervicalCheck screening programme and responsible for its failings just as the laboratories – Quest Diagnostics and MedLab Pathology – were too. The sum of €2.16 million was awarded to her by the High Court.

Appeal

But in that same month, the State and the two laboratories tasked with analysing the smear test samples appealed the Morrissey judgment to the Supreme Court.

By then, very sick and weak, Ruth Morrissey attended one day of three-day Supreme Court hearing in December 2019. In March, the Supreme Court confirmed that the High Court had been correct in holding the HSE responsible for the errors and the operation of CervicalCheck.

Although frustrated by the lengthy legal proceedings that were wasting her precious time with loved ones, Ruth Morrissey remained determined and dignified throughout the process. Friends and family say that she held on to her sense of humour and kindness towards others throughout the experience.

Following the Supreme Court decision, Ruth Morrissey even encouraged women to still go for smear tests, noting that even though the testing system had failed her, it saves many, many lives.

Her husband, Paul, who she first met when she was 17 and he was 19, said Ruth had fought fiercely to stay alive for the family she adored. “The example she set stands as an enduring inspiration of strength and determination that should help many others through difficult times in the future.”

Ruth Morrissey is survived by her husband, Paul, her nine-year-old daughter, Libby, five sisters, two brothers, nieces and nephews. Her parents, Seán and Mary Moloney, and sister Niamh predeceased her.