In case you weren’t already aware, TCDSU will be holding a referendum, following on from the results of last year’s preferendum, asking students whether or not the Students’ Union should adopt the long term policy of advocating for legislation for abortion to be upon request of the woman. As abortion and reproductive autonomy are undeniably controversial subjects, it is unsurprising that some students would organise a counter campaign against the motion. While I most certainly do not begrudge students having opposing political opinions, I must take issue with the ‘No’ campaign’s claim that an official stance on abortion would violate the Union’s mandate to operate “independent of any political, racial or religious ideology”, since it completely ignores the SU’s political role and the larger history of abortion within Ireland.
One of the main arguments that the ‘No’ side has used to defend its position is that the Student’s Union is obligated to respect the opinions of every member, and thus should refrain from political action on the basis of ‘majority rule’. While it is indeed essential for the SU to encourage and respect the development of varied opinions and beliefs (as befitting Trinity’s reputation as a centre of intellectual development), this should not be used as an excuse to prevent any political action on their part. One of the main roles of a student’s union is to represent and advocate on behalf of student bodies in a larger national basis, which includes tackling political issues that have a bearing on students’ lives. It goes without saying that, in order for TCDSU to fight for its members in the political arena, it has to reach a consensus on what the students actually want, and this consensus is achieved through the democratic process of repeated referendums. To pretend that a mandate pursued as the result of such a process is somehow ‘undemocratic’ is simply ludicrous, and to argue that abortion is too divisive an issue to have an official stance on is to ignore the SU’s existing campaigns on issues like education cuts and LGBT+ rights. For our SU to truly function as “a recognised channel of communications between its members and the college and other bodies” as per the constitution, it has to take an official stance, or else its ability to effectively campaign on student issues will be severely limited. Furthermore, the position of ‘neutrality’ as described by the ‘No’ side completely ignores the historical and current context of the Irish state’s pro-life policies. Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in Europe (even with the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act), to the point where the act of disseminating the name and address of an abortion clinic in any situation outside of a medical consultation is legally prohibited, and punishable by a fine of up to “£1,500”. The Irish state has a documented history of misogynistic and patriarchal control over women*’s bodies (I’m using women* instead of women in order to avoid excluding trans*, genderqueer and other gender identities biologically capable of being pregnant), with any attempt at exercising bodily autonomy leading to legal retribution and social castigation, and insisting that TCDSU maintain a politically convenient position of neutrality is to indirectly support a religiously motivated status quo that has relentlessly resisted alternate perspectives towards abortion. Indeed, this status quo is based almost purely upon the attitudes of the Catholic Church, and has little respect for the perspective of other religions. Emily Murtagh, in her online open letter to the Provost, claims to speak for a “diverse range of cultures, religious practices and moral convictions”, but the testimony given by various religious groups to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children last year indicates that there is no unified religious opinion on abortion. If TCDSU is to truly respect the opinions of all its members, then it is beholden to campaign so that Quaker, Judaic and Buddhist students can make their own individual decisions, instead of being legally restricted in their bodily by the strictures of a primarily Roman Catholic state.
Finally, it must be emphasised that TCDSU is bound by its constitution to “provide for the welfare of its members”, a principle which necessitates political action in a situation where students are being adversely affected by larger political issues. Thus, the TCDSU runs campaigns against education cuts, increased fees, and homophobia within Irish society (a fact which the ‘No’ side seems unwilling to address) as they negatively affect the student community in Trinity. According to statistics released by BPAS, at least 5000 women* travel to England each year to access an abortion, a figure which undoubtedly contains a sizable number of students. There is no doubt that countless more women*, unable to afford the trip abroad, are forced to self-administer at home and hope that they are not imprisoned for 14 years. The ‘No’ flyers claim that they want to “support those with pregnancies in Ireland”, but make no mention of this shocking figure, nor the financial and mental stress that these young women* experience as they seek to access abortion for a variety of reasons. Their complaints about the experience of being marginalised and unrepresented by the political actions of TCDSU, while no doubt sincere, completely ignore the lived experiences of their fellow students and the state’s role in perpetuating this system. To argue against TCDSU campaigning on behalf of these women* (and indeed all women* within Ireland) is to subtly imply that political beliefs are more important that living people, and that the travesty of the Irish state coldly abandoning these women* is simply not worthy of the Student Union’s attention. That is why you should vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum next week, so that TCDSU can do what it can to support the bodily autonomy and security of its students.