The Collegian
Wednesday, February 01, 2023

INTERNATIONAL OPINION: Irish students' referendum mirrors abortion controversy in the U.S.

<p>Graphic by Claire Comey/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Claire Comey/The Collegian

Editor's note: 63 percent of the graduating class of 2017 studied abroad at least once, according to the Office of International Education. The Collegian is expanding its coverage beyond Richmond and the U.S., harnessing the proximity and perspectives of an international student body. The International section will include worldwide news, opinion, interview and photo articles written by students currently studying abroad.

Late last Thursday night, I frantically refreshed Twitter looking for the results of a vote. I was invested in a referendum to impeach Katie Ascough, the Students' Union president at University College Dublin, where I’m studying abroad this semester. 

When the results came in around 1 a.m., I felt a familiar rush of excitement.

The referendum to impeach Ascough from her position began with a petition signed by over 1,000 students who believed that she wrongfully withheld information about abortion services from the student body.

Her peers on the Students' Union said she spent nearly 8,000 euros to reprint a freshmen student handbook without information about how a UCD student could seek out an abortion abroad. Ascough said that distributing the information would be illegal, implying that she would be criminally liable since abortion is banned in Ireland.

As far as I can tell, the university may have received a small fine (around 1,800 euros) for distributing the information, but there’s no strong evidence that Ascough would face jail time as she suggested. No other members of the Students' Union said that they were involved in the decision to reprint the handbook.

Openly Catholic, Ascough had been public about her pro-life beliefs even before she was elected. Before running for president, she campaigned for the Students' Union to change its official stance on abortion from pro-choice to neutral in a referendum that did not pass. Consequently, her views on the issue were well known on campus when she ran for president. 

Even still, the Vote Yes to Impeach campaign emphasized that Ascough should be removed from office, not because of her personal beliefs, but because she disrupted the democratic ideals of the SU by acting against the general belief of the student body. 

Nonetheless, throughout her campaign to remain president, Ascough argued that her rights to “freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of association” were being contested as a pro-life advocate.

Ascough felt as though she was being impeached not because she reprinted the handbook, but because of her beliefs. As an observer from the U.S., it was hard to ignore how strongly Ascough’s rhetoric mirrored that of many conservative groups on American college campuses.

From my own view, it seems that students were most outraged at Ascough’s actions because the Students' Union at UCD, although an inherently political institution, is seen as a body that works for the needs and benefit of students, regardless of outside influence. The SU has long worked to advance students’ reproductive freedom by providing services and information about sexual health. For example, the Students' Union on campus distributed condoms when contraception was illegal. 

(It was illegal to buy contraception, including condoms, in Ireland until 1993. Even still, it can be challenging for many individuals to find some forms of contraception in the country due to their cost or general availability.)

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Given Ireland’s long history of less-than-progressive legislation, the Students' Union has been a powerful force in enabling students to receive necessary health care. Ascough’s actions marked a noteworthy change in the perceived role of the SU, which ultimately led to her impeachment. 

In the end, Ascough was removed from office with 4,540 students out of 6,572 voting in favor of her impeachment.

Although it was not the sole factor in Ascough’s impeachment, the process of removing her from office amplified an ongoing debate on abortion rights in Ireland. There is an active movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion. Those who favor repealing the amendment argue that the law does not reflect contemporary public opinion.

One misconception I had about going abroad is that I would get a break from the constant political chaos in the U.S. 

This has proven impossible for two reasons: the first being that the New York Times app does not cease to work when traveling abroad, and second, the more time I spend in Dublin, the more concerned I become with the people here and their wellbeing, which I see as being intrinsically connected to politics.

Engaging with politics in Ireland has been disheartening, especially when it comes to reproductive rights, because it has become apparent that injustices I see in the U.S. exist in other countries in more complicated and frustrating forms. It has been a reminder of the privileges I have been afforded in the U.S. when it comes to reproductive care, but more importantly, how vital it is to protect those rights.

What I have found inspiring about being at UCD in the midst of this referendum is the students' commitment to the democratic process and their willingness to fight when they felt that the needs of the collective student body were being threatened by the agenda of an individual. 

The number of students who petitioned and canvassed was overwhelming. As a young person, it was encouraging to see so many students actively engaging in person, rather than through social media.

We don’t often consider political engagement as part of our experiences studying abroad, but maybe we should. Voting in this election and engaging with my Irish peers about how the results might impact them has given me a window into Irish culture that has made my time here more meaningful.

I’m thankful for this lesson in democratic practice and hope to carry what I’ve learned back to the U.S. in December.

Contributor Olivia Tennyson is currently studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland. Contact Olivia at

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