What is the SU stance, and why are people unhappy about it?

In February 2014, Trinity College’s Student Union held a referendum to make long-term a policy that had been adopted in a preferendum the previous year.

The question asked was ‘Should the Students’ Union adopt the long-term policy to advocate for abortion to be upon request of the woman?’ In an email sent to students (10/02/2014) we were told that ‘A YES majority will see TCDSU campaign for legislation to support abortion upon request of the woman until such a point where the fetus is deemed viable outside of the womb by medical experts. A NO majority will mean that this position will not be adopted.’ That week, 4024 voted. 73% voted yes. 1016 voted no. This is what the SU means when they say that in 2014, 73% of students voted for a pro-choice mandate. They mean that about 3000 students did, out of a total student population of over 16,000 (Edit: This was actually a mistake on my part. 16000 is the total student population, but the relevant group here is undergraduates. There are only over 12, 000 of them!). I have friends who were in college at the time who don’t remember this referendum.

Interestingly, I don’t remember the add-on about viability being mentioned again. In SU documents and facebook posts, it seems to always be referred to as ‘abortion at the request of the woman’ – if not just a ‘pro-choice’ mandate.

I’m not convinced this mandate is one most students are comfortable with – and that’s assuming the email was correct about the viability limit. With better technology, this has already decreased over time: an increasing number of babies born at 22 weeks survive. Future progression will hopefully mean a further lowering of the limit. Should something so arbitrary really determine whether a fetus /baby is worthy of protection or not? (Have a look at the second half of this BPAS link for some varying limits of viability across different countries and for different rationales behind them). Some of you might feel it should. But if you feel uncomfortable about this idea, then you feel uncomfortable with the SU’s stance.

What’s more, most of the student body probably haven’t made their minds up on this issue yet. Their primary source of information about it may well be the SU, who have no mandate to provide objective, non-biased information – only to convince people that abortion should be available at the request of the woman up until the point of viability.

How does the SU stance impact on the college experience of students who feel misrepresented?

I spoke to a few students (all women incidentally) who don’t feel represented by the SU’s stance about how it impacts on their college experience. One thing that came up was that when people know little about why a person might not agree with abortion, they often assume it is for bad reasons. When people are left largely ignorant about an entire side of a debate, this has consequences about how people view and treat their fellow students. One person said:

‘I personally feel isolated from the college community due to the college’s stance on repealing the 8th amendment. … I am made feel that I am in some way backwards and that I do not care about my fellow students who may face an unplanned pregnancy’.

A friend, who is unsure about her stance on abortion, spoke about people around her telling jokes about anyone who was not pro-choice, not realizing she felt they were actually also insulting her. She said nothing. She also said it was hard to voice disagreement, or even uncertainty on the issue – doing so was almost ‘taboo’ in certain circles. ‘The pro-choice people have a very strong view and there are many who cannot see the other side of the argument’. As a result, it took her a long time to realise some of her friends felt the same way.

Other people felt that their opinions weren’t respected:

‘It’s uncomfortable constantly having the repeal marches and activities pushed in our faces when we don’t want to take part. I am respectful of pro-choicers’ views, I expect the same respect to be shown to me, especially coming from student body representatives’.

Or in another person’s words, Trinity sells itself as

‘a place where every student is treated equally. Why then do I feel silenced when the abortion issue comes up? Even though I don’t agree with abortion, I respect other people’s opinions. Everyone has their own reasons. I would like to be given the respect to voice my opinion too. The SU is supposed to represent all of us’.

Others that they were being dismissed:

‘TCDSU certainly did not acknowledge me when I spoke to them last year in distress about their strong stance for repeal of the 8th …  I felt that they weren’t empathetic and just shrugged their shoulders. I felt like I was pushed to the borders and my voice didn’t matter’.

Most people have a stock of incidents that show the hostility isn’t all in their heads. I’ve been told by a student that ‘pro-lifers are all Catholic bigots’. I got the sense they were a bit surprised when I disagreed. In a Trinity News article about students who feel misrepresented by the SU, one Facebook commentator, who received 22 likes, asked ‘what are pro-lifers doing in university anyway’ because ‘the Bible contains all [they] need to know about the world’. It wasn’t so much the trollish comment that was surprising as the amount of likes.

Obviously, internet trolls and ill-informed students aren’t under SU control (and every cause has its unwanted troll allies). But incidents like these add up. And they are more likely in an environment where due to general bias, people don’t know much about the positions of the people they disagree with.

The images of pro-life people that do get spread by the SU are largely negative. For example, according to a UT article from last year, in an SU panel event featuring only pro-choice speakers, one of them, Colm O’Gorman, said that ‘at the heart of opposing attitudes lay a suggested “mistrust of women”.

The SU does try to foster an atmosphere of respect at their events, Lynn Ruane in particular, seemed to make an effort last year. But at the same time, she wrote on her own site that:

‘I believe [the 8th Amendment] to be a relic of a conservative, backwards Ireland that is completely inconsistent with the values of the modern, liberal, secular Irish society that exists today’. While this isn’t technically saying that students who support this amendment are themselves backwards, or don’t quite belong in a supposedly modern, liberal campus, it isn’t hard to imagine someone getting that impression.

The point I’m trying to make here though, is that apart from the occasional token debate where we hear from representatives on both sides, views like these form the major part of what pro-choice students have to go on when forming opinions about students who disagree with them.

Due to a lack of information, most students are completely unaware of things like modern feminist and secular pro-life movements, the gender disparity in how people perceive abortion, or even the existence of organizations in Ireland like One Day More (a group of parents of children with ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ that support their right to life) that tell the other side to the story…Basically, they are not very likely to know much about the actual reasons why some of their peers oppose abortion.

Is it surprising that the students I spoke to feel the way they do, given how they’re portrayed?

What can the SU do about this?
The SU’s mandate doesn’t have anything like the amount of student support that they’d like us to think it does, and it often contributes to the exclusion of those who disagree. But given that they aren’t going to stop their campaign any time soon, there is a change they could make which would address one of the biggest concerns the people I spoke to had.

This concern was about the overall way that unplanned pregnancies are portrayed in this campaign. During the Fresher’s Week rally, the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy was described as an ‘unmitigated disaster’. And last year, we heard lots about the ways pregnancy could negatively affect people’s college experience, and how ‘young female students who are immersed in student life face losing out on life in the event of a crisis pregnancy’. This message of disaster is not being balanced. And it’s the last thing anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy needs to hear.

In an attempt to persuade people that abortion is necessary for equality, the SU often unintentionally makes the situation for someone facing an unplanned pregnancy seem bleaker than it is. How often to we hear, as a counter to this message, about the supports available to students who do find themselves pregnant during college – the supports that could mitigate the disaster? Not often.

The SU Campaign inadvertently encourages students in crisis pregnancy situations to think that they have to make a choice between continuing with a pregnancy and continuing to thrive in college when it should be possible – as a matter of equality – for them to do both.

This shouldn’t be hard to remedy. After all, in 2015, when Lynn Ruane was SU Student Parent Officer, the SU were involved with the publicising of A TCD Policy for Student Parents, Carers and Students Experiencing Pregnancy, and they have also advertised breastfeeding rooms on campus in their weekly emails.

Students should be aware of the support that is already available to them – and if ever these supports aren’t enough, Trinity should be held to what they said in that policy: ‘College believes that being or becoming responsible for a child or dependent adult should not, in itself, be a barrier to a student succeeding in, or completing a programme of study’.

But a lot of students still don’t know about these supports – and as it’s information students facing crisis pregnancies should have before they find themselves in that situation, it should be common knowledge. Especially in a context where the SU is running a campaign that focuses mainly on how a pregnancy can be an unmitigated disaster for a student.

Seeing to this wouldn’t run against the SU’s a pro-choice mandate, nor would it go unnoticed by some of the students who have been alienated by that mandate. If they really want to support and represent students, this is really the very least that the SU can do.