How House Six made Ireland pro-choice

Trinity News sits down with the former SU officers who nearly faced prison time during their thirty year battle for the right to choose in Ireland

On July 1, 1988, Anne Marie Keary arrived on University College Dublin’s (UCD) campus ready to take up her new role as the Student Union’s Welfare Officer. Amidst the piles of student and staff queries that she found on her  first day was a court order from the Society of the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The order said that UCDSU’s decision to print abortion services information in its freshers’ pamphlets violated the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution, and that if it chose to disseminate the pamphlets, the sabbatical officers were at risk of facing prison time. For 23-year-old Anne Marie, this news could not have been worse. “Suddenly, you were in this media storm and we were in our early twenties and had no experience with that… I was being interviewed by all these journalists, [being asked] these kind of sensational questions: ‘Are you prepared to go to jail?’ ‘Who do you think you are?’” Keary said in an interview with Trinity News. 

For the next thirty years, Ireland’s fight to keep abortion services information available to women would be spearheaded by college students. The fight would be an all-consuming one, but eventually the pro-choice movement would prevail. This is a brief history of how students across Ireland defended the right to choose and how without them, women seeking an abortion might still be living in fear, forced to travel outside of Ireland today. 

SPUC v Open Door Counselling Ltd. 

With the 8th amendment enshrining the foetal right to life in the Irish Constitution and a complete prohibition of abortion in full force, approximately 5,000 Irish women had been travelling to the UK annually to seek abortion services since the legalisation of abortion there in 1967. The Irish government did not tell women how to access these services, openly condemning  women who did. 

The only way that women could access abortion services information for clinics in England was through two independent Irish women’s health agencies: Open Door/Line Counselling and Well Woman Centre. After they were taken to court and injuncted by SPUC in 1986, they chose to shut down their physical centres, ignoring the court’s order to seize the dissemination of abortions services information by moving their services to a secret phone line. 

In response, College Student Unions around the country stepped in and used their platforms to support the centres and disseminate abortion services information through phone lines and various pamphlets. SPUC grew increasingly angry.

SPUC v. Coogan

The court order against UCD from SPUC on July 1 was uncharted territory for Irish Student Unions. While UCDSU leadership wanted to win their case, they decided to represent themselves in the High Court: “we wanted to make sure that we had the student support and we were kind of worried that all of these legal costs would make this something that students would not want to support,” Keary said. 

Fortunately, circumstances were on their side: “…we couldn’t have gotten a better judge … [she] was very respectful, … Judge Mella Carroll didn’t enact a provisional injunction against us … [and] said that it was here-say what SPUC was saying about us giving out information. It was quite incredible really,” Keary continued.  

SPUC appealed, however, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. None other than Mary Robinson stepped in to defend Keary and the other SU officers. Despite this, SPUC ultimately won the case.

UCDSU was officially injuncted and, under court order, could no longer distribute the pamphlets. They did anyway. While this was technically illegal and could have resulted in prison time, it didn’t. As explained by Ruth Riddick, a former counsellor at Open Door, in an interview with Trinity News: “Irish society in general was small “c” conservative and, on the whole, wished the public brouhaha would just go away. Nobody was interested in locking me up despite my invitation to do so as reported on the front page of the Irish Times and on RTE.” 

Keary, who comes from a conservative Catholic family and who went to a Catholic school during the passing of the 8th amendment, was quick to see the importance of UCD’s place in all of this: “I would be in my office and women from all over Ireland would be phoning me for this information. It was very real that these 5,000 going to get abortions each year  in the UK did not have the information to do so …  I kept bringing it back to the women.” 

 SPUC v. Grogan

But SPUC wasn’t done yet.

In 1989, Union of Students in Ireland (USI), UCDSU, and TCDSU, were issued court orders by SPUC’s solicitors for the same offence that UCDSU had been injuncted for a year prior. 

The TCD freshers’ guidebook injuncted by SPUC in 1989. Photo courtesy of Senator Ivana Bacik.

That summer, those 14 student officers targeted by SPUC quickly began meticulously planning. Stephen Grogan, USI President at the time, spoke with Trinity News and explained that the group met “every week over that late summer period as we got ready for presenting to USI’s monthly meeting called National Council, and for when college returned and SRCs or Student Unions started to convene.” He added: “Because we were a group, [there was] a sense of strength and security.” 

For the TCDSU, however, the case was particularly difficult because of how life altering the verdict would be if things didn’t go to plan. TCDSU was the only SU that had actually released the pamphlets at the time of the court case because of its earlier freshers week. The officers would face prison time if they lost: “[SPUC] sent people onto campus to … set us up …  and they used to ring the office all the time, get people to ring to set up evidence. I mean, they had the guards come in to investigate us for corruption of morals. We had a notice served on us by Gardaí … it was very tense … very scary,” Senator Ivana Bacik said in an interview with Trinity News.

Bacik explained that one day, TCDSU was even chased around House 6 by the Gardaí for operating a phone line which provided the “phone number of the clinics in England or the underground helpline then operating here in Dublin (01 6794700) which would help them to book an abortion/termination of pregnancy in England.”  

Matters only got worse when the SU officers discovered who their judge would be: “We understood we were going to prison because the judge assigned to hear our case was quite well known for sending strikers to prison for contempt of court,” Bacik said.  

The message from Mary Robinson, who stepped in at the last moment to provide legal counsel, was clear: “‘pack your toothbrushes, you’re going to jail.’” 

Yet, by some miracle, they received news on the Monday morning before court: “we were told there had been a change of judge and the judge assigned to the case accepted Mary Robinson’s argument and referred the case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. So we didn’t get sent to prison happily,” Bacik recalled.  

Ivana Bacik and the TCDSU campaigning for the Right to Information. Photo courtesy of Trevor Butterworth.

The case that Mary Robinson made was one that centred around a similar argument made in Open Door at the Supreme Court a few years prior. The counselling centres argued that women, under European Community (EC) law, had the right to receive lawful medical services in another EC country and that information about said services was part of this protection. Though this argument failed in 1986, Robinson and the 1989 team had a judge in the High Court who believed that the European Court of Justice needed to decide whether women were entitled to information about services outside the state. 

Nevertheless, despite this relief, the personal costs of the long legal  process which continued through to 1992, were life altering. 

“Outside of the walls of campus we were spat at, we were threatened, I was hit”

For one, TCDSU was declared bankrupt due to the legal costs. But perhaps more significantly, these SU officers who had been ordinary college students just a few years prior, were now public figures, subject to the cruelty that comes with media attention: “I think we were all incredibly brave. I was 21, some of the others were 20, some were 22, some were only 19. I was lucky I had a supportive family, but my family were targeted and they got calls asking ‘is this the baby murder clinic?’” She added:  “Outside of the walls of campus we were spat at, we were threatened, I was hit.” 

Keary, named in both Coogan and Grogan, also battled against pro-life attitudes within UCDSU itself: “UCD had more students campaigning against the policy [than in other universities] … there would be people [in the union] who would be less keen … I was quite on my own,” she explained. 

For Grogan, the court case was a contributing factor in his decision to leave Ireland: “I moved from Dublin to Prague to work for the International Union of Students. I had no resources or assets and at the time Czechoslovakia was a socialist country, so there wasn’t any way for SPUC to pursue me across that particular geographic legal line. But no, I didn’t flee either. I pursued my own interests, if that makes sense,” he said. 

Stephen Grogan speaking at USI’s Annual Congress in 1990. Photo courtesy of Stephen Grogan.

Repeal the Eighth 

Following the 1992 ‘X’ case and the death of Savita Halappanavar, all those involved in the fight for abortion rights from the start of the 1980s joined with new generations of activists to fight for a referendum that would repeal the 8th amendment once and for all. 

On May 25, 2018, that very referendum was held. 

“Just under a quarter of a million leaflets were handed out around Dublin by Trinity students over the course of two days”

Speaking to Trinity News, TCDSU President at the time Kevin Keane, detailed the collective effort involved in fighting for “Repeal the Eighth” in the lead up to May 25: “We did a super canvas on two different days … over 300 [students] signed up …  just under a quarter of a million leaflets were handed out around Dublin by Trinity students over the course of two days … just having “Repeal” messaging around the city was really important.”

Decades worth of sacrifice, struggle and campaigning ultimately culminated in success as 66.4% of voters voted to Repeal the 8th. Today, abortion is legal in Ireland within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and exceptions are made later on for women with health complications. 

Looking back, Keane is proud of what generations of college students were able to achieve: “When … the guards came up into House Six and chased [the TCDSU] through the building, that was the same building in which we, whatever it was 30 years later, had the opportunity to contribute … in some small way, to the culmination of this decades-long struggle,” he concluded: “to have that template of ambition … and of uncompromising activism on an issue that matters laid down for you by predecessors who were willing to put their liberty on the line for the cause … That can’t help but be inspiring.” 

Ruby Topalian

Ruby Topalian is a Senior Freshman, Dual BA student of Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. She is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, having previously worked as Deputy Societies Editor.