College is a time in a young person’s life when they try to make up their mind on important social and political issues. Abortion is one of these issues. However, many students’ unions choose to take stances on often very contentious political issues such as this and, as a result, fail to represent all of their students. Surely organisations that represent thousands of students should have room for more than just one view on issues such as this?
In University College Dublin (UCD), there was a four-way referendum held in 2013 on the issue of abortion. Of the students who voted, 45 per cent favoured University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) backing a campaign for unrestricted abortion to be legalised in Ireland. The other options were for supporting the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which allows abortion when the life of the mother is at risk, a neutral stance and a pro-life stance. The fact that the union gave four options to choose from highlights just how divisive the abortion issue is.
Many students feel that they’re not welcome in their own university because their union currently campaigns for something that they deeply disagree with
What is interesting about the pro-choice stance is not just that 55 per cent of those who took part didn’t vote for it, but that those who voted for it (less than 1,200 students) represented a mere 3.7 per cent of the entire student population.
Abortion has been prevalent in the media recently, particularly since the general election in February and the subsequent establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly. For anyone in UCD during Freshers’ Week this year, it was clear that UCDSU were focusing a lot of their attention on promoting their “abortion without limits” stance, leading to many students feeling excluded from the union. Many students feel that they’re not welcome in their own university because their union currently campaigns for something that they deeply disagree with. Others feel their union is “dividing” rather than “unifying” students and others feel that they are being told what to believe.
In the wake of this, UCD Students For Fair Representation was set up, and the first goal was to ensure UCDSU adopts a neutral stance on the abortion issue. This is to ensure that no students are discriminated against, that everyone is given freedom of thought to make up their own minds on this important matter and to encourage discussion about what we want Ireland’s abortion laws to be.
A petition was set up on Change.org to gauge interest. Within eight hours of publishing, it had already received 100 signatures and had attracted the attention of both the University Observer (the union’s newspaper) and UCDSU itself, who said that they would not change their stance unless a referendum was passed. In order to hold a referendum, 927 signatures (3.5 per cent of union membership) had to be obtained.
In the first day and a half of the petition, entitled “The Students’ Union should adopt a neutral stance on the abortion issue”, we had collected 850 signatures – an incredible response. We collected about 1,000 signatures before submitting the petition. There has been a lot of discourse around the campaign. Approximately 3,000 people saw our first campaign video within 24 hours of its release on October 18th. Many have asked what issues UCDSU should be focusing on. The union does and should represent us on issues of common interest to all students, where there’s not such a moral divide. The list of issues the union could be focusing on is endless: fees, the housing crisis, campus facilities and mental health, to name but a few.
Abortion is such a contentious issue that even those calling for a repeal of the eighth amendment disagree on what should replace it
We should not forget the wonderful job UCDSU does on certain issues, such as raising over €100,000 for Youth Suicide Prevention Ireland (YPSI) last year, organising events throughout the year to alleviate the stressful nature of third-level study and giving out free ring-binders to help with the costs of being a student. All of this is brilliant, and the union should be commended for it. We love the puppy-petting and giant games of Connect-4 outside the student centre, but to take a side on an issue like abortion is divisive.
Abortion is such a contentious issue that even those calling for a repeal of the eighth amendment disagree on what should replace it. For example, AAA-PBP want unrestricted abortion until birth, while groups such as Amnesty International are campaigning for abortion at least in the cases of rape, incest and life-limiting conditions. There is no way that one stance fully represents the pro-choice side of the debate, let alone the wide variety of views on the whole issue.
So how can a union which represents thousands of individual students be anything but neutral on this controversial issue? This is why UCD Students For Free Representation is campaigning for a yes vote in the upcoming referendum on UCDSU neutrality.
Roger Berkeley is a business and law student in UCD and an organiser of the UCD Students For Fair Representation group.