This week students in NUIG are being asked to vote on whether their union’s pro-choice position should be repealed. Sarah McCarthy writes on why students should reject this proposal.

Last year, NUIG students voted overwhelmingly in favour of our union adopting a pro-choice position. Over 70% of votes cast agreed that our union should play an active role in the campaign for reproductive rights in Ireland. However we are being asked to vote on the issue again, just one year later. On Thursday March 6th, you will be asked to vote on whether the pro-choice position should be repealed and a “neutral” position adopted. Why should you vote No?

First of all, it’s important to consider what a truly “neutral” position on abortion would look like. “Pro-choice” does not mean “pro-abortion”; it is a broad stance which encompasses many points of view. It is about realising that every child should be wanted, and that forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy she does not want is simply wrong. Equally, it is about striving for a society in which all people have the support they need to have the children they want. Crucially, it is about trusting women to make decisions about their own lives for themselves. It is about respect and equality, values we should be proud to uphold.

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Conversely, to fail to adopt any stance on the issue of abortion in Ireland is equivalent to supporting our current laws which cause severe hardship for thousands of women. Every year over 5,000 women are forced to travel from this island to UK abortion clinics, and many more have to order abortion pills online. This includes increasingly large numbers of students. We are facing rising fees, cuts to grants, and the disastrous system SUSI which has left many still without their grant. We have reached the point where so many students are on the brink of poverty that many SU’s have begun handing out food boxes. How many of us could easily find the €500 – €2,500 needed to travel; and at short notice?  Many are simply deciding to order abortion pills online on websites such as womenonweb.org and self-administer at home. While a medical abortion is a very safe procedure when done in the first nine weeks of pregnancy, this is hardly an ideal situation. One student from Dublin described her experience:

“I couldn’t afford to travel to the UK, so took the abortion pill at home at seven weeks pregnant…It was enormously stressful waiting for it to arrive… [It was] very stressful to take the pill with no medical supervision…Later I went to a family planning clinic for a check-up and they advised for me to have an ultrasound check. As a student I couldn’t afford it so I just had some blood tests and hoped everything would be okay.”

A consistent theme in such accounts is the loneliness and isolation that most women feel. Many speak of the anger they felt at having to hide their decision and others describe how they just wanted to be able to go home to their own bed. “Neutrality” will not help these women.

It is important to be clear that Ireland’s laws against abortion do not prevent Irish abortion. We have a typical abortion rate, close to that of Britain. We need to face up to the reality that our restrictive abortion laws only work to place the most vulnerable women in a desperate situation when facing an unwanted pregnancy. If we adopt a “neutral” position, we will be effectively supporting this injustice.

Student Unions’ have a long history of being at the forefront of the fight for reproductive rights. For decades they sold condoms illegally, and many gave out information about abortion against widespread public pressure and legal challenges. Senator Ivana Bacik almost went to jail for doing so. In Galway, the NUIG SU was heavily involved in setting up the first Family Planning Clinic, amid much controversy. For years the national Union of Students of Ireland (USI) has had an explicitly pro-choice position and in the past couple years Trinity, UCD, IADT and DCU have all adopted the same stance. From gay liberation to women’s rights to natural resources, Students’ Unions have been instrumental in pushing Irish society forward, and they have always taken progressive positions long before they became the norm.

A pro-choice stance is the natural position for our SU to take, and we shouldn’t be afraid of dealing with the tough issues. Savita Halappanavar’s death is the stark, gut-wrenching proof that this issue is urgent, and that our “Irish Solution” is shameful. We have a duty to break the stigma, silence, and desperation that so many women in this country have to face. Make sure our union keeps up this good work; vote NO on Thursday.

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