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Thursday 18 January 2018

SU president at centre of anti-abortion stance controversy slams calls for her impeachment

Katie Ascough says calls for impeachment are 'without legitimate cause'

Katie Ascough
Katie Ascough
Katie Ascough
Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine

A students' union president at the centre of a controversy over her anti-abortion stance has slammed calls for her impeachment as "bullying tactics".

President of UCD Students' Union Katie Ascough is now facing a second impeachment vote after another petition on the campus collected 1,200 signatures.

The petition comes after, just weeks into her presidential term, Ms Ascough was criticised after she withdrew information over access to abortion services in a magazine circulated to new students.

Ms Ascough said she took an “executive decision” to redact the information after receiving legal advice that the abortion information was illegal in Ireland, despite the fact the information was previously available in UCD.

The information in the 'Winging It' magazine that was removed included pregnancy help websites, the prices of abortion in other countries and information on abortion pills.

While it is lawful to provide information in Ireland about abortions abroad, it is subject to strict conditions.

Ms Ascough's decision was widely criticised by the student body as the decision to remove the page, which required reprinting the annual guide, was reported to have cost the union about €8,000.

In a letter seen by Independent.ie, Ms Ascough said it "is no secret that she is pro-life and many students are not."

She said the calls for impeachment are "without legitimate cause" and described as "alarming" the "bullying tactics" of a group of students to "try and discard a democratically elected SU president."

"It was clear from the outset that some students didn’t want to give me a chance as SU President because of my views on abortion," she said.

Katie Ascough
Katie Ascough

She called for a "fairer, freer, and more democratic UCD".

"We don’t have to agree on the issue of abortion, but we should be able to respect each other and not endorse unfair accusations," she said. 

"Since the day I was elected, before I’d been put in office, some students were already calling for my impeachment," she wrote.

Ms Ascough pleads her case under four categories; Decision to Follow Legal Advice; Delivering for You; Things to Come and Democracy and Fairness.

She said she will soon publish the legal advice she received regarding the leaflet.

She wrote; "The main reason that a group of students are calling for my impeachment is because of my decision to not break the law and illegally distribute abortion information.

"The Union was producing a handbook that acted as a college guide for incoming students.

"I was aware that the handbook contained abortion information, but was not informed by the editors of the book that it was illegal to distribute this information.

"I originally delegated the sign off for the handbook to the Campaigns & Communications Officer.

"After the books were printed and delivered, a staff member pointed out various issues including potential illegality of some of the content.

"I then sought legal advice regarding the abortion information from the Union’s long-standing lawyer who is an ex-president of USI and advocate for Repeal of the Eighth amendment.

"He advised that it would be prudent to avoid proceeding with the current handbook either by having it redesigned or cancelled. I also asked the Board of Directors for advice, and they agreed with the decision to follow legal advice.

"As CEO of the company, I decided to follow the advice of the Union’s lawyer with the Union Board’s agreement."

Ms Ascough said the cost of reprinting the handbooks was approx. €7,000.

She wrote; "My suggestion to the Sabbatical Officers was that we publish the amended book online, and not incur this cost, but they were certain they wanted it reprinted."

She said each person involved in publishing the content, if prosecuted, "would have been at risk of up to €4,000 in fines each, a personal criminal conviction, and, if prosecuted, the Union could also incur thousands in legal fees."

She continued; "As CEO of the company, this was not something I was able to stand over, and so I decided to follow the legal advice offered by the Union’s lawyer."

She added; "Another point to note is what changed in the book.

"The main legal issue with the abortion information was that it was being handed out in an unsolicited manner (that is, no one being handed the book was actively seeking out the abortion information).

"Therefore, the change made to the book was to take out the abortion information that had legal implications, and replace it with the contact details for agencies where the same abortion information could be sought in a solicited, legal way.

"Essentially, the page went from showing the abortion information, to directing people to the places to get the same abortion information.

"That was the alteration that was needed to stay within the law and not put up to two dozen people at risk of thousands in fines and permanent personal criminal convictions."

Ms Ascough, who previously said that she will take annual leave until the referendum has been called, detailed her work in the union so far. She said she has helped host "successful events like Fresh Fest and Freshers’ Ball", managed two campaigns on student accommodation which hit national headlines, took part in national media groups' coverage on the cost of college and has initiated mental health campaigns.

In order for the impeachment campaign to win the referendum, a minimum of 10 per cent of the registered union members must vote, which equates to between 2,000 and 3,000 students, and the majority must be in favour of the motion.

If fewer than 10pc of union members vote, the impeachment campaign will lose the referendum.

Earlier this month, Returning Officer Stephen Devine, rejected the first petition as he was concerned with its validity.

Over 1620 students signed the petition calling for UCD SU President Katie Ascough to be impeached due to her pro-life views.

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