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UCDSU President removes abortion content from handbooks, faces impeachment campaign

Michelle Beazley, News Editor:

The University College Dublin Students’ Union have reprinted their start of year handbooks, entitled Winging It In UCD, in order to exclude unlawful information concerning abortions. The illegal content was shown on page 59 of the original handbook, which arrived prior to UCD’s Orientation Week. The amended handbooks do not disclose pricing information for abortions or advice on where to obtain abortion pills online. In 2016 the students of UCD voted to maintain their union’s pro-choice stance from 2014. Re-printing the handbooks cost the union a total of €8,000.

Katie Ascough, UCDSU President and a prominent pro-life activist, told the University Observer that the originals “could not” be distributed for a number of reasons, including incorrect phone numbers and insurance details. She further noted that “…there was some illegal content regarding abortion information.” The page in question gave details about safely procuring an abortion, specifically a price list for various international clinics, and information about buying abortion pills online. Per the Abortion Information Act of 1995, supplying this material is an offence. Ascough said that the SU “…regrets the waste in monetary terms and will work to find areas where we can make up such losses.”

The five sabbatical officers of UCDSU had the opportunity to view the handbooks and make amendments before it went to print. As this point, Ascough said she was unaware that supplying the information was in breach of the 1995 Act. The remaining 4 sabbatical officers informed the Observer that they knew of the illegality of the material but nonetheless fully supported its inclusion, and were against its removal from the ultimate version of the handbook. The information originally on page 59 was almost identical to the content on abortion in the previous year’s handbook, with the exception that last year students in UCD were provided with a link leading to a particular website that would allow them to procure abortion pills online.

Ascough asserts that a UCD staff member questioned the legality of the material on page 59 after the original handbooks were printed and delivered, and it was only at this stage that she became aware of the potential issue, and immediately sought legal advice. UCDSU’s lawyer advised her that breaching the 1995 Act put the union at risk for a maximum fine of €4000, and the seizing of the “offending material.” Ascough told the Observer that, to her knowledge, “that could be applied to anyone who is actively involved in breaches of the act or in sanctioning the breach.” As such, she felt within her rights as SU President to unilaterally rewrite the page and reprint the handbooks without the content on abortions.

A rework of the offending page in an attempt to provide the information without appearing to promote abortion by Campaigns and Communications Officer Barry Murphy was allegedly never considered by the President. Murphy went on to convey his disappointment that the other Sabbatical officers did not meet with the union’s lawyer themselves: “The legal advice from our lawyer was passed to us from Katie. I only heard it from Katie. It really annoyed some sabbats that they couldn’t [hear] first-hand legal advice except through the president.” Graduate Officer Niall Torris revealed that the sabbatical officers were informed that legal advice would only be given to the President of the union.

Although the current handbooks include other examples of illegal information, such as a ‘how-to’ guide on removing a clamp from your car, the UCDSU President looked to the union’s lawyer solely for advice on the content relating to abortion because she felt that “this year with the potential referendum coming… there would be a spotlight on this kind of information.”

Former TCDSU President and current Senator Ivana Bacik called the decision to exclude the material “disappointing,” highlighting that s3 of the Act in question actually permits the inclusion of content regarding international abortion options, as long as they are legally available in that country, as abortions are in England, and that the information provided is “truthful and objective and does not advocate or promote abortion.” Senator Bacik continued: “In reality, for decades now, students’ unions have been publishing information in freshers’ handbooks on where to obtain abortions outside Ireland … By providing abortion information in this way, they are not advocating or promoting abortion. No students’ union has been prosecuted for any breach of the 1995 Act as a result.”

Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhnaill had sympathy for the pro-life Ascough: “It’s a difficult position I’d imagine, possibly having to face the prospect of going to court for something you don’t fundamentally believe in.” Ascough was very insistent in her campaign for UCDSU President that she would “delegate” on issues relating to the movement to Repeal the 8th amendment. UCDSU Education Officer Robert Sweeney feels Ascough has not lived up to those promises: “It contravenes the quote she gave that she would delegate the issue. I don’t feel that it was properly delegated.” Murphy holds a similar view, saying: “I thought she would delegate completely. I didn’t think it would be a case by case basis.” The UCD Comms officer went on to say that the exclusion of the offending material constituted a “win” for Ascough and for “strong circles and her family.” Ascough’s father sits on the Board of the Iona Institute.

The SU President strongly denied that the removal of the material was a personal decision, insisting it “was made on legal grounds alone.” On accusations of a failure to delegate, she told the University Times: “I will continue to delegate as required but stand firm that this issue was not in the realms of my delegating an abortion issue but was my stepping up and leading as the President to ensure we are not putting ourselves and students at risk”.

Update:
Robert O’Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief

A campaign has been launched by several UCD students to impeach SU President Katie Ascough following on from the events as described above. Amy Crean, a UCD Law with Social Justice student, yesterday evening launched a campaign alongside several other UCD students to impeach Ascough. Under the UCD SU Constitution, at least 3.5% of the student population (referred to as “membership of the Union”) must sign a petition calling for a referendum. Current estimates of UCD student figures place the requisite number at approximately 1,140 students. Speaking to the Express, Ms. Crean elaborated on why their group has decided to campaign for Ascough’s impeachment: “We’re campaigning to impeach because Ascough has failed to carry out the duties she’s mandated to, and placed personal views above the welfare of students by denying them vital healthcare information.”

When asked if the informal group agrees that the campaign is based on Ascough’s personal ‘pro-life’ beliefs, she added: “I and the group strongly emphasise that this is not about the president’s beliefs, but that she promised she would remain neutral yet hasn’t. We voted for a pro-choice SU and she fails to support that, and has actively stood in the way of pro-choice activism in UCD. She has let her personal views impact her work and that’s clear because it wasn’t only about redacting important information from the handbook, but conflict with UCD for Choice, and actively discouraging the recruitment of pro-choice class reps.”  Finn McLysaght, a UCD student responsible for the Facebook page ‘Impeach UCDSU President‘, added that they felt that “Ascough’s actions are abhorrent and shamefully undemocratic; she swore she would delegate and ended up overriding the decisions of all others involved when it came to abortion. It is clear she never had any intention of sticking to her mandate”

For the vote to carry in a potential referendum, an established quorum of at least 10% of students must vote. The most recent referendums, a referendum on the SU’s stance on Irish Unity and a ‘preferendum’ on fees, did reach quorum, but it should be noted that those referendums were voted on at the same time as the Students’ Union elections. When asked if she believed a potential referendum would reach quorum, Ms.Crean stated that: “[their group] are very hopeful about the impeachment campaign; there was a widespread response of outrage from students when they heard about the redacted abortion information, which directly went against her promise not to bring her anti-choice views into the position.

“I think a referendum would reach quorum because there’s widespread awareness of the issues with her presidency; she didn’t run for election on her anti-choice stance and didn’t bring any attention to it. many who voted for her were unaware of her views. now that there’s been tangible negative impacts from it, we think that students will engage because they recognise the importance of it.” When asked if other SU officers supported this campaign, Ms.Crean confirmed that they “We have SU support but cannot give names.”

We reached out to UCD Students’ Union President Katie Ascough for comment on the impeachment campaign but did not receive a response. We will update you if we receive a comment from Ms.Ascough.