A scandal over cervical checks is a sign of a bigger problem in Ireland

Demonstrators march in protest of the national cervical check screening program, which has been embroiled in a series of scandals for more than a year.

(CNN)For months, Sharon had been anxiously waiting the results of her pap smear test.

She had taken the test back in December under Ireland's national cervical check screening program, and as she had taken it annually for years, she was expecting to receive the results back in six weeks' time.
When she hadn't received her results by the spring, Sharon, who Ireland's health authority identified only by her first name, started to worry. In April, after first contacting CervicalCheck, the screening program, she sent a series of emails to Ireland's Department of Health outlining her concerns regarding the significant delay. They told her there had been a general slowdown in turnaround for test results.
    By June, after doggedly pursuing answers, officials from the screening program eventually admitted there had been a glitch, saying that "due to an IT issue in the laboratory" her results had never been issued.
    And Sharon wasn't the only one.
    Out of 4,088 women who had taken a smear test from December 2018 to July 2019, 873 hadn't received their tests, according to the MacCraith report, a review commissioned by the health authority into what had happened.
    Days later, another woman identifying herself only as Ms. Scullion came forward to the Irish Times, exposing yet another mistake in the cervical screening process.
    Scullion, like Sharon, was one of the 873 women who hadn't received her results for months. When she finally got the letter in August, it said that she had tested negative for human papilloma virus (HPV). But Scullion knows that she's HPV positive.
    After she made her story public, Ireland's health service, the HSE, said that over 400 women had also received a letter with an "inaccuracy."
    The revelations have marked yet the latest chapter in a years-long controversy over cervical screenings that has rocked the country.
    And by challenging the system, Sharon and Scullion have joined a group of women whose push for answers have unearthed a cataclysmic series of scandals within the health service, controversies that continue to raise questions about what womens' rights activists view as the prevalence of institutionalized misogyny within it and Irish society.
    Dr. Mary McAuliffe, historian and lecturer in Gender Studies at University College Dublin, says the government's response to the problem demonstrates that women are not a priority.
    McAuliffe told CNN that current attitudes in the government reflect an "almost unconscious demeaning of women's health and women's bodies" where "women's bodies and the risk to women's bodies are not important -- and in particular their reproductive bodies and their health care is seen as secondary to maybe money, to power, and to a patriarchal system that has always seen women as second class citizens."
    Ireland's Department of Health did not specifically address McAuliffe's allegation in comments to CNN, but did say that the government is soon expected to issue a formal apology to the women affected by the failures of the screening program in the next Dail (parliamentary) term.

    'They knew I was ill'

    The failures of that program all started in 2011, when Vicky Phelan, a mother of two, received a letter in the mail from CervicalCheck, confirming a negative pap smear test.
    Three years later, she took another one, and it came back positive. In July 2014, Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Before she was diagnosed, unbeknown to her, an audit was carried out on the first test.
    That audit found that the results of her 2011 test had been inaccurate, and that there had been a strong indication of cancer.
    Campaigner Vicky Phelan exposed Ireland's cervical check scandal.
    Phelan began aggressive treatment on the cancer, and it went into remission. But in 2017, the cancer came back in the form of an inoperable 10-centimeter tumor. Phelan's doctor told her that it was terminal and that she had a year or two to live.
    He then told her about the audit, which had taken place three years earlier without her knowledge. Phelan sued.
    In April 2018, Phelan took the HSE and the US-based lab that had been outsourced by the HSE to analyze the results to Ireland's High Court.
    Her lawyers argued that if the cancerous cells had been correctly detected in 2011, Phelan could have had a hysterectomy, and would have been given a 90% chance of survival.
    She was awarded a 2.5 million euro (approximately US $2.8 million) settlement with Texas-based Clinical Pathology Laboratories Inc and the case against the HSE was dropped. As part of the settlement, CPL did not admit any liability, but its lawyers did press Phelan to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
    She refused.
    "They knew I was very ill, and I think they were hoping that I would sign the non-disclosure because they knew I was so sick. They thought, 'Why would this woman fight when she's clearly sick?" Phelan, 44, told CNN.
    In researching her own case, Phelan and her lawyers discovered that there were about ten other women in her same position, who had yet to be informed about their incorrect smear test results. That number would later swell to more than 220 women.
    "I knew it wasn't just about me. I couldn't in all conscious sign anything if I knew that the other women affected would not find out," she said, adding that she wasn't willing to let the authorities sweep their stories under the carpet.
    "If I'm going to die, I'm going to bring them down with me," she said.

    'Why didn't you tell me?'

    A month after Phelan's day in court, the HSE confirmed that at least 209 women had been given inaccurate smear tests, all of whom were subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer.
    Eighteen of those women had already died not knowing they had been misdiagnosed. Since, it's been discovered that at least 221 women were misdiagnosed.
    In a May 2018 statement, the CervicalCheck screening service said that "on look-back, the screening test could have provided a different result or a warning of increased risk or evidence of developing cancer" for those women.
    The government soon established a "scoping inquiry" into the screening program. Its findings, supported by the advocacy and campaigns of terminally ill women, such as now deceased 37-year-old mother of five Emma Mhic Mhathúna, were published by Dr. Gabriel Scally in September 2018.
    The hearse carrying the body of campaigner Emma Mhic Mhathuna, one of the most high-profile victims of Ireland's cervical smear test controversy, passes by government buildings last October.
    The Scally report found that the screening program was "doomed to fail," and made 50 recommendations to combat problems that it said were "redolent of a whole-system failure."
    The report drew from testimonies of some of the women affected by the misdiagnoses, which revealed a troubling account of a medical culture seemingly content with keeping patients in the dark.
    "He (the doctor) had seen I had had a hysterectomy and decided I didn't need to know," read one woman's account.
    Another woman recalled an exchange with her doctor, who asked: "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell my clinicians?" The doctor responded, "What difference does it make?" Pressing her doctor further, the woman asked how she would be informed in the future.
    "Watch the news," her doctor said.
    And in another piece of testimony, described by Scally as "one of the most disturbing accounts," a close relative of a woman who had died detailed that during the disclosure meeting, the woman's doctor mentioned "several times that the late woman was a smoker (it is known that smoking impedes the body's ability to clear itself of the HPV virus) and they were also told that 'nuns don't get cervical cancer.'"
    Addressing Minister for Health Simon Harris in the report, Scally praised the "extraordinary determination