UCD President, Katie Ascough, describes ’abortion row’ vote as blow to ’freedom of speech, thought and association’

The President of UCD Students’ Union, Katie Ascough, who has been impeached following a referendum by students, has today described the circumstances leading up to her removal as a blow to freedom of speech, of thought, and of association.

Last week 69% of the 6,600 students who turned out to vote, voted in favour of removing Ms Ascough - a pro-life activist - from office despite her explanation that information she asked be removed from a student handbook was only removed after concerns were raised about the legality of publishing unsolicited information around price lists and web sites that sell abortion pills.

Katie Ascough

In the first extensive explanation of the circumstances that led to her impeachment Ms Ascough said that subsequent suggestions that her action was motivated by some sort of pro-life censorship was "unfounded and ... absurd".

In a statement she goes on to suggest that the campaign to remove her was based on a series of allegations which she strongly refuted and warned that moves to remove someone "because their opinion differs from yours is not conducive to fostering a respectful and inclusive community."

She goes on: "There must be room to respect those with different opinions. This is critical to true debate and intellectual freedom.

"Although I believe my impeachment is a regressive step - to convict someone of the crime of refusing to commit a crime is a dangerous precedent - I hope that the light it has shone on the intolerance of some may allow us to build better campus communities, where tolerance, inclusivity and fairness are truly valued."

Katie Ascough and a fellow student at a pro-life vigil

Read Katie’s statement in full below ...

"On March 9th, 2017, after a long and exciting campaign, I was honoured to be elected President of UCD Students’ Union.

I believed I had something to bring to UCD students, and I didn’t think my pro-life views should hinder that. I was passionate about improving things like food facilities and mental health supports. I loved running my campaign, and I really enjoyed my four months as President.

The very day of my election, some people were already calling for my impeachment. Though I had been democratically elected, for some my personal views were enough to deem me worthy of impeachment. It was just a question of finding an excuse to oust me.

I took up my position in the summer and formed an excellent working relationship with the other sabbatical officers. We enjoyed great success with our two housing projects – securing meetings with ministers and government funding – an historic achievement. Our union was functioning well and I believe we had that potential for the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, the Winging It books were in the works. These serve as a college guide to incoming students, with information on everything from chicken fillet rolls to nights out. They also contained a section on abortion information. However, following my promise to respect the pro-choice mandate of the union, I delegated the sign-off of the content to another officer.

After the books had arrived, a staff member informed me that some of the abortion information might be illegal. I sought legal advice from the Union’s solicitor, who confirmed in writing that distribution of the books was almost certainly illegal and that it would be prudent to avoid proceeding with the book, whether through redesign (if not too late) or cancellation.

Unfortunately, it was too late for a redesign, as I had not been made aware of the potential illegality until after the printing was completed. As chief executive officer of the union, I could not avoid responsibility for the distribution of the books. I did the best that I could with the information I had to hand. I was a medicinal chemistry student in her first full-time job.

I was unwilling to commit a criminal offence, risking conviction and fines for myself and anyone else involved in the distribution. Whether you agree with my decision or not, I ask you, please: place yourself in my shoes. I faced immense pressure for about a week to authorise the distribution of the books, but I did not feel comfortable doing this. I promised to respect a pro-choice mandate; but I never promised to break the law.

It is also important to note what changed in the books. Some said I “burned” the books or ripped out a page on abortion because I am pro-life. This is not true.

The abortion information was illegal because it was unsolicited. What changed was that two sections were replaced with the phone numbers and websites for agencies, including our own SU welfare office, from which the exact same abortion information could be obtained in a legal, solicited way.

The idea that this was some sort of pro-life censorship is unfounded and, quite frankly, a bit absurd.

The controversy over these books was used to start an impeachment process. However, once I defended my actions, the impeachment campaign shifted gears. They then tried to manufacture other ways I had supposedly broken my promise to respect the pro-choice mandate.

First, they accused me of trying to reduce the budget for the UCD campaign for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. This budget was already three times greater than that for any other campaign.

As president, it was my job to regulate funding. I asked if we needed to spend so much on one campaign, but these questions were answered and the budget was approved; in fact, the repeal budget was significantly increased this year compared to last.

It was said I tried to kick a pro-choice group out of the Freshers’ tent. This is not true. Our stand had been scheduled for three other groups already, including a sponsor who pays money toward attending these events.

I was told, last minute, that a fourth group, the pro-choice group, also wished to be at the stand. No matter who they were, I would have asked questions about how they would fit and if it was necessary. These questions were answered, and the pro-choice group joined us at the stand.

Finally, it’s been said that I tried to prevent pro-choice students from running for class rep. I had one conversation about Facebook posts in which I suggested we promote a balanced mix of campaigns - including not merely repeal, but also our campaigns on consent, the environment, and disability rights - to incentivise more students to run for election.

This was not an effort to prevent anyone from running for class rep, but was intended to appeal to a wider range and greater number of students.

Universities should be a place of freedom of speech, of thought, and of association.

To wish to boot someone out from day one because their opinion differs from yours is not conducive to fostering a respectful and inclusive community. There must be room to respect those with different opinions.

This is critical to true debate and intellectual freedom. Although I believe my impeachment is a regressive step - to convict someone of the crime of refusing to commit a crime is a dangerous precedent - I hope that the light it has shone on the intolerance of some may allow us to build better campus communities, where tolerance, inclusivity and fairness are truly valued."


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