The referendum on the 8th Amendment is this Friday. These last few days before the vote are filled with passionate campaigning by groups on both sides, and rightly so. The Irish people are making a decision that will have a huge impact on how crisis pregnancy will be viewed in this country. Understandably enough, this close to polling day, tempers are fraying and there is a temptation to indulge in last-minute politicking and gimmicks.
Today, unfortunately, the USI fell prey to that temptation, and put politics ahead of students in crisis.
Today (two days before a one-in-a-generation vote on abortion, and after the end of term for most Irish colleges) they announced that they would be cutting all ties with Cura, a crisis pregnancy counselling agency funded by the HSE and one of its partners in its “Positive Options” initiative. Their services (all free) are available throughout the country and they offer a national helpline open 6 days a week. (The name might be familiar to Trinity students in particular – they have a branch just across the road, on Suffolk Street).
When college counselling services are so overstretched, why are the USI removing a potential alternative source of support from their recommendations to students? Well, apparently Cura is guilty of “a failure to provide ‘full support’ for pregnant people when it comes to abortion and abortion support… Cura only provides two options during pregnancy counselling, which can cause unnecessary pressure and lack of knowledge for people to make an informed choice about what to do in an unplanned pregnancy.”
So, the USI seems to be saying that Cura is an unacceptable option for students in crisis because it does not offer contact details for clinics in the UK which offer abortions. But Cura has always been quite clear that, while it offers post-abortion counselling, it will not directly assist people in obtaining an abortion: under the “Ethos” section of their website, they state: “The name of the organisation, Cura (the Latin word for CARE), is intended to express its purpose, to provide care for the mother and her unborn child” and note that the organisation was founded by the Irish Bishops’ Conference: “Cura is a service agency of the Catholic Church, and works in accordance with the compassionate vision and teaching of the Church.” However, as a HSE-approved, nationwide agency, Cura is not some kind of cult-like, “rogue” agency or a lobby group promoting Catholic teaching. Its counselling is non-judgemental and non-directive amd open to all, regardless of “age, marital status, race, gender, religious or economic status.”
Of course, the USI is a pro-choice organisation and no-one is expecting them to direct all students to Cura; it also recommends, for example, the Irish Family Planning Association and Dublin Well Woman Centre, both of which will provide abortion referrals. And it certainly makes sense that the USI would clearly explain to students what options are available at each agency, so students have the widest possible range of options.
But in publicly announcing it will no longer even tell students about one of the biggest crisis pregnancy counselling agencies in the state, the USI has demonstrated that its focus on this referendum has made it lose sight on the needs of students in crisis. It is obvious that Cura’s services could be appropriate for many students: it offers counselling for new parents under stress (something which virtually every student parent will experience at one time or another) and free counselling during a planned or unplanned pregnancy to both the pregnant person, their partner, and those close to them. The USI seems to completely discount the possiblity that a student could decide to continue with an unplanned pregnancy and want such counselling. Furthermore, what about a student who wants to continue an unplanned pregnancy but may be coming under pressure from her partner or parents to get an abortion? She may well decide that receiving couples or family counselling from an agency that does not offer abortion services is the best and most supportive option for her, and yet the USI is refusing to provide that option to students.
The TN article on the USI’s decision highlights that Cura is funded by the Irish Bishops’ Conference. Does this mean that it is always and at all times an inappropriate option for the USI to inform students about? Well, no. Some university students (shockingly) are Catholics and are perfectly comfortable availing of the services of Catholic organisations. And some students are pro-life and would not want to seek an abortion; many more are pro-choice politically, but know they would not themselves get an abortion. Cura is open to all, of any religion; students are able to decide for themselves if they wish to use its services in those circumstances. The Dublin Dioscese funds Crosscare, but it is hard to imagine the USI refusing to tell hungry students about the food banks and other services it offers because of that.
The USI instead recommends the IFPA, Dublin Well Woman Centre, and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s services are specifically for those affected by sexual violence; they obviously are not the appropriate option for a student experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and seeking counselling. If even 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 students in a crisis pregnancy might wish to use the services of an agency like Cura, why not tell them about it and let them decide?
The only reason not to is to score a cheap political point in the final days before the referendum. The USI should remember its obligations to vulnerable students and give them the information they need, rather than using their crises for public posturing.