If you are pro-life be confident, brave and unafraid
My impeachment as UCD students’ union president must not hinder debate
Katie Ascough pictured in University College Dublin. Photograph: Jack Power
My pro-life* views have led to many interesting conversations, and some difficult situations – most recently, I was impeached as president of UCD students’ union.
I ran for the presidency in March 2017. Called “the pro-life candidate” by campus media, I was conscious of being turned into a two-dimensional character for my views on abortion, despite my insistence that I was not running on a pro-life platform and that I would respect the pro-choice mandate of the union.
Some people, however, had fitted out a box that they were determined to have me sit in: the girl with the draconian pro-life views. I was determined not to be placed in this box, not to be told who I was, or why I should not run for the presidency of my own students’ union. I ignored the holes punched in my posters and the tweets calling for my demise. I wasn’t going to let bullying tactics detract from my right to campaign for a democratically elected position.
I did this by committing wholeheartedly to my campaign to be elected president. I thoroughly enjoyed the hours spent canvassing, speaking at lectures, and having late-night chats with UCD students.
I was put under intense pressure for about a week to authorise the distribution of these books. However, I was not comfortable with risking a personal criminal record
When elected president, I was determined not to let these students down. I worked 12-hour days and many weekends – I loved my job. I felt competent and capable, and our team was making ground-breaking progress on matters such as student accommodation and sexual consent.
Then came the controversy with the Winging It student guides. These books contained abortion information, and in keeping with my promise to respect the pro-choice mandate of the union, I delegated the sign-off of the books to another officer. After these books had been printed and delivered, a staff member pointed out that some of the abortion information might be illegal. The union’s lawyer confirmed that we were risking personal criminal convictions and up to €4,000 in fines each for myself and anyone else involved with the books.
Abortion price list
I was put under intense pressure for about a week to authorise the distribution of these books. However, I was not comfortable with risking a personal criminal record for the rest of my life for myself and others. In the end, a price list for abortions and reference to an online abortion pill provider were replaced with the phone numbers and websites for organisations, including our own students’ union welfare office, from which the same abortion information could be obtained in a solicited, legal way.
This was when the naysayers resurrected their box. Because I am pro-life, it was claimed that I had tried to censor abortion information by amending the books. There was no benefit of any doubt, no respect for the fact that I didn’t wish to break the law, only a call for my impeachment.
Some students had been calling for my impeachment since the day of my election. Any progress I helped make on student housing, mental health or student engagement didn’t seem to matter. To them, all that mattered was my view on abortion.
During my campaign against impeachment, I had a lecturer say to my face: “I want you gone.” Another interrupted my speech with disparaging comments. Online there were physical threats, negative comments on my life, my looks, my family, my views. Nothing was held back.
The college papers engaged in what many have called a witch hunt. In a ratio of about 10:1 some papers wrote articles against me, often brushing over inconsistencies on the pro-impeachment side. It felt as if I was targeted the moment I declared my intention to run for the office of president – and with their first signal, it was all guns blazing.
Please, for the sake of our country, do not tiptoe around this issue because you’re concerned about what other people might think
Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I reflect on my presidency and impeachment in a larger context. I have numerous friends who are strongly, and privately, pro-life. I have been asked if I think my impeachment will further discourage people with pro-life views to speak up, but I hope and trust that it will do the opposite.
I hope it will show clearly just how imperative it is that everyone is respected and has their voice heard on this important issue. The fact that some people do not want our voices heard should make us even more determined to speak out and share our viewpoint. Rational debate does not ignore one side of the argument, and I trust both pro-choice and pro-life sides would agree on that.
To those who are pro-life, I urge you to be confident, brave and unafraid. It can be scary – trust me, I know. But please, for the sake of our country, do not tiptoe around this issue because you’re concerned about what other people might think. Thought policing smothers true debate and is one of the biggest threats to a free democracy. We give in to it when we allow ourselves to be silenced.
Be it in the home, out at coffee, in the workplace, or on the streets, do yourself and your country a favour: don’t sit in a box that has been designed to make you feel comfortable with being silent and that is intended to deflect open debate.
To those who are pro-choice, I respect you and I hope we can engage in reasonable and rational debate over the next few months.
Finally, to those who are undecided, I urge you to be open, to look past the boxes and to listen to both sides.
*This article was amended on November 13th, 2017