Pictured: Page 59 of the original and reprinted Winging It in UCD handbooks.
UCD Students’ Union have reprinted their Winging It in UCD handbooks due to the presence of illegal content about abortions. The original handbooks ordered by the union for the current academic year arrived before Orientation week, after which the legality of content on page 59 was raised.
Speaking to the University Observer, Students’ Union President Katie Ascough explained why the original handbooks “could not” be handed out: “There was no date on the publication. There was an issue with the VHI section, it said that it was open to non-members which is not the case anymore. There were some wrong phone numbers in it, and there was some illegal content regarding abortion information.”
The content on page 59 provided information about obtaining an abortion safely, specifically a price list for different clinics outside Ireland, and information about purchasing abortion pills online. Providing this information is in breach of the Abortion Information Act of 1995.
The removal of the abortion information was one of the main reasons for the reprint, with the remaining four SU sabbatical officers objecting to the removal of the details. The abortion information in the original handbook is almost identical to what was published in last year’s edition, with the exception that students are directed towards a specific website to obtain abortion pills online.
Before the original handbook was printed, all five sabbatical officers viewed the book and were able to make edits they felt necessary. Whilst Ascough claims she did not know providing the information on page 59 was illegal, the remaining sabbatical officers were in full knowledge of the illegality of that content. Campaigns and Communications (C&C) Officer Barry Murphy said “I always knew it was illegal, the rest of the team always knew it was illegal, that it was in breach of the act.”
Ascough claims that it was only after the handbooks were printed and had arrived at UCD that a member of staff raised the issue of the possibility of the content being illegal, it is at this point that she sought legal advice from the union’s lawyer. Ascough read the following information to the University Observer: “The penalty for breaches of the act are a class B fine not exceeding €4000 and forfeiture of the offending material.” She added “To my knowledge that could be applied to anyone who is actively involved in breaches of the act or in sanctioning the breach.”
Ascough made the decision to remove the illegal content after a consultation with the students’ union’s lawyers. Murphy re-wrote the section in an attempt to publish the information in a manner that did not appear to promote individuals getting abortions, but “this was never entertained [by Ascough].”
He also did not meet with the SU lawyer. “The legal advice from our lawyer was passed to us from Katie, I only heard it from Katie. It really annoyed some sabbats that they couldn’t [hear] first-hand legal advice except through the president. I regret that at the time I didn’t have the advice from our lawyer before it was published, and since then.”
On this matter, only the SU President dealt with the lawyer. According to Graduate Officer, Niall Torris: “Sabbatical Officers were told that legal advice would only be given to the President or the COO [of the Union] but it would never be given to a Sabbatical Officer,” this is something which bothers Torris in “a wider context”.
Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhnaill says he understands how difficult making such an executive decision was for pro-life Ascough: “It’s a difficult position I’d imagine, possibly having to face the prospect of going to court for something that you don’t fundamentally believe in.” However, he agrees with the concern that due to the illegal content, any individual, whether a class rep, staff member, or college officer, handing out the book would be liable to be sued for providing the information.
Throughout her campaign for SU President, Ascough often repeated that she would “delegate” on matters concerning the campaign to Repeal the 8th amendment. That the publishing of this information was prevented is something Education Officer Robert Sweeney feels is a failure to delegate. “It contravenes the quote she gave that she would delegate the issue, I don’t feel that it was properly delegated.” This sentiment of not appropriately delegating the matter was echoed by Murphy: “I respect her views, and I respected her during the campaign, she said she would delegate. I thought she would delegate completely. I didn’t think it would be a case by case basis.”
The Winging It handbooks contain other illegal advice (such as how to remove a clamp from your car) but Ascough sought legal advice for the abortion information because “this year with the potential referendum coming this is a big year for this issue and we felt there would be a spotlight on this kind of information.”
In the past the SU has engaged in illegal activities while campaigning for laws to change, Murphy speaks of “back in the day when condoms were illegal, the students’ union put out condom dispensing machines, they went to court in the 1990’s [over providing information on abortion] and it’s looked back on as one of the proudest moments in the history of the union.”
Murphy, Sweeney, Mac Domhnaill, and Torris were all prepared to stand by the original handbooks and were all prepared to hand out the books to people with the illegal content still present. Murphy said “this is the year to do it, to push the boat out. Myself, Eoghan, Rob and Niall were all happy to do it. We were all happy to hand out the book, and handing it out alone so we would not be engaging college officers, volunteers, class reps.” They are all “against [the removal of the content]”.
The newly printed, and dated, handbooks do not contain pricing information for abortions, and do not contain information on where to obtain abortion pills online. They are being given out by the SU throughout Freshers’ Week.