Students’ unions should stand firm on abortion
Posted on September 25, 2017
Almost 30 years ago, I was threatened with prison by SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). It was September 1989. I was president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), and SPUC were seeking to imprison our four TCDSU sabbatical officers for providing information on abortion in our students’ union handbooks during Freshers’ Week.
A few years previously, the 1983 Eighth Amendment had been passed, equating the lives of “mother” and “unborn”.
The courts had then ruled that, under this text, it was illegal to provide women with addresses and phone numbers of abortion clinics in England. Pregnancy counselling services closed down, and students’ unions became the only places providing such information for desperate women.
Brilliant legal argument by our senior counsel, Mary Robinson (later president of Ireland), kept us out of prison. Our case was referred to the European Court of Justice, and went on for many years.
Before it concluded, the people had voted in a 1992 referendum to amend the Eighth Amendment to allow freedom of information on abortion services lawfully available in another state.
In 1995, the Oireachtas passed the Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act, 1995, which set conditions on how such information may be provided.
Despite this change in the law on information, the Eighth Amendment has continued to cast its grim shadow over generations of women for 34 years.
It has generated a series of tragic cases, like the X case in 1992, and has endangered the lives of pregnant women, making doctors afraid to intervene until they are close to death. Over recent years, calls for repeal have become stronger, particularly since the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012.
Legislation was passed in 2013 setting out when doctors may perform abortions to save women’s lives. But the Amendment itself has remained in place, preventing us from legalising abortion in any other circumstances.
Since 1983, more than 160,000 women have travelled to England for abortion. During all those years, we have seen enduring hypocrisy dominating public debate, where “pro-life” politicians and commentators pretend that abortion does not happen in Ireland, conveniently ignoring the reality.
Given the proud history of the students’ union movement in Ireland on this issue, it is really disappointing to see reports this week that University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) has removed a page about access to abortion from the union’s freshers’ guide, giving “legal advice” as the reason.
It is difficult to see how any legal advice could have required this decision. According to reports, the legal advice related to potential breaches of the 1995 Regulation of Information Act. This Act only criminalises provision of information about “services provided outside the State for the termination of pregnancies” – so there would be no breach of the Act arising from information apparently published in the guide about how to obtain an abortion pill in Ireland.
Further, the Act in Section Three actually permits the publication of information about services provided abroad, once that information relates to services that are legally available abroad (as abortions are in England) and is “truthful and objective and does not advocate or promote abortion”.
Section Four makes it illegal to publish information about where to access abortion abroad in any books or leaflets distributed “without solicitation by the recipients”. But a freshers’ guide handed out by union officers to incoming students on a college campus could hardly fit that definition.
In reality, for decades now, students’ unions have been publishing information in freshers’ handbooks on where to obtain abortions outside Ireland.
That generally means that they have been printing the contact details of clinics like Marie Stopes and BPAS in England, alongside information on other options open to women facing a crisis pregnancy, such as contact details for single-parent support networks and adoption agencies.
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.
So I find it unlikely that any decision to delete information on abortion from an SU freshers’ guide was really made as a result of robust legal advice.
And even if a lawyer had advised caution, officers of a students’ union with a pro-choice policy should feel politically confident and morally justified in continuing to publish such information. After all, while the Eighth Amendment remains in place for now, times have changed since the late 1980s.
Back in 1989, not only were we threatened with prison by SPUC for contempt of court for handing out information in breach of a court order, but we were also questioned by gardaí investigating the offence of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals” – a crime of dubious origin, for which we were never actually prosecuted. It is impossible to think that such a criminal investigation would even be contemplated in today’s Ireland.
So it is hard to see why any students’ union in 2017 would feel it necessary to delete information on abortion from a guidebook.
It’s especially hard to understand this at a time when the Citizens’ Assembly has recommended repeal of the Eighth Amendment, the Oireachtas committee on the Amendment has already started holding hearings and the Taoiseach appears committed to the holding of a referendum on the issue in 2018.
In the meantime, until we have achieved repeal and can meet the needs of women in crisis pregnancy at home, we can at least hope that students’ unions with pro-choice policies will continue to provide members with the necessary information to access reproductive health services abroad.
Ivana Bacik is the Reid professor of criminal law, criminology and penology at Trinity College Dublin and a Labour Party Senator on the Trinity panel.