Student involvement has been an undeniable force in propelling national campaigns into the public spotlight, enhancing visibility and cementing the general understanding of what the campaigns aim to achieve. We have seen controversial campaigns ignite passion in students, and it is not a rare sight to see radical measures taken by them. From the marriage equality campaign to one of the more current movements, the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, students have taken hardline stances.
During the past year, across the country, we have seen students’ unions mandated to march, campaign and lobby for the repeal of the eighth amendment. Working alongside the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), this movement has resulted in thousands of students descending on Dublin for protest marches, while smaller campaigns also took place on campuses across the country. The political impact of these marches and the wider issue of the consideration given to the student voice, however, has been questioned. Are these students just chanting slogans that fall on deaf ears, or is there substance to their efforts?
Looking at the history of the movement to gain access to abortion for women in Ireland, it is clear to see that students have always had a substantial impact. In September 1988, for example, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) began a series of legal actions against students’ unions who were providing information to students regarding safe access to abortion. Other student actions included marches protesting the arrest of the 14-year-old girl at the centre of the “X” case. Students took to the streets when the girl was arrested while attempting to travel to England for an abortion after being raped.
Ivana Bacik, Senator and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology and former President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU); and Maxine Brady, former President of USI, were heavily involved in student movements in what could be considered the last time the issue of abortion was on the national agenda.
Twenty years since her personal involvement against the pro-life SPUC, Bacik is still opinionated on the issue of reproductive rights. Having attended Trinity during the 1980s, when the issue of students’ unions providing information about safe abortions was at intense heights, it was not long before the atmosphere of activism in the college engrossed Bacik into the conversation. Prior to her role as TCDSU President, Bacik was involved in a women’s group on campus. Describing her involvement to The University Times, she says that she and others were “involved in the campaign for reproductive rights”, and that “we were all out there supporting, what was then, pro-information”. Bacik and the other women involved in the campaign for information “were aware that there were already litigations against student union offices the year before I was elected”. Instead of deterring them, however, they continued to provide information to students who needed it.
Bacik remembers being 18 or 19 years old and attending a meeting in Liberty Hall following the Hamilton judgment that granted SPUC an injunction against the Dublin Well Woman Centre and Open Line Counselling, preventing them from providing non-directive pregnancy information. Bacik cites this meeting as “a pivotal meeting for many of us who were quite young”.
Bacik and the other women involved in the campaign for information “were aware that there were already litigations against student union offices the year before I was elected”
Little did she know that not that long afterwards, during her time as TCDSU President, she, and a number of other students, would be taken to court with the threat of imprisonment by SPUC, following their refusal to comply with an injunction preventing the publication of abortion information in student guidebooks. A copy of Aontas, the students’ union magazine, ran the story on their front page in week six of Michaelmas Term, with a photo on the back page of a man giving an obscene, two-fingered salute to the camera, against the caption: “Dear SPUC. With love from, all TCD students.”
When I ask whether Trinity was an open place for such campaigns and discussions, Bacik immediately responds by calling the students’ union prominent in the conversation, and notes that they “bravely were the only organisations offering women information on abortions”. She believes this was “in keeping with tradition of the student movement in Ireland”. She also notes that, at Trinity, “students have always been at the forefront here”.
The student contribution to this issue was taken a step beyond normal, with a number of students feeling so strongly about the issue that they were taken to court and willing to go to prison for the cause. Bacik remembers proudly the interest foreign film-makers and journalists showed in the involvement of students, revealing that they would “come to us with surprise to the prominent involvement of students in the campaign for women’s rights”. While in Ireland the frontline of the campaign was being led by students, “in other countries, it tended to be led by women’s groups or by the medical profession where they had seen women dying from lack of abortion”. Student movements tend to be less afraid of radical action than those who are attempting to sway political parties and the wider voting population. Plus, the media attention their actions receive makes them unique.
In recent marches and protests, thousands of students have made their presence clear and their pro-choice stance even clearer. Bacik comments that these actions are helpful at keeping the issue visible, but also called for students to become pro-active on the political side of the conversation as well. They can do this by lobbying constituents individually and through lobby groups, students’ unions and USI. By combining protests with concrete action, the issue becomes more respected. The “real target” is to change the constitution, and in order to do this, the support of the majority in Dáil Éireann is crucial. When we spoke of whether the current pro-choice campaign is too forceful or is failing to reach out to certain groups of people, Bacik praises the efforts students in particular are making. She tells me that “there are room for improvements”, and stresses the importance of a “careful and strategic campaign to win over the middle ground, those who would not describe themselves as pro-choice”.
Speaking to The University Times, Maxine Brady, who served as President of USI from 1991 to 1993, has spent her time since she was president travelling across Ireland and the UK advocating for personal autonomy over reproductive rights. Currently an Executive Producer at Pull the Trigger Ltd, a commercials production company, Brady was USI President at the height of the scandal surrounding the “X” case. Reflecting on that time, she says that the case represented “a wider society issue involving travel rights”. She tells me the importance of personal rights, and how this issue of abortion extends beyond the individual and affects everyone. It is not just the issue of autonomy but the issue of censorship that angered Brady. She remembers the pro-information campaign on abortion and contraception which focused on protesting against the government restricting and dictating what students’ unions could give information about. Currently, Brady is of the opinion that people can be anti-abortion but also pro-choice, noting that opinions can change upon circumstance and crisis.
Student politics ends up being an indication of what the general and wider population believe, which is important for governments to pay attention to
In the case of the student involvement against the “X” case, Brady states that people who “normally wouldn’t be out on the streets, supporting the students” joined the movement as they “didn’t know what else they could do around the campaign that could continue the push for information rights and travel rights”. This shows how the existing student participation in these campaigns and media coverage on the issue was vital for those who were to become involved in the campaign, once they recognised the bigger issue. This is, as Brady puts it, an example of just how effective and successful student campaigning can be.
When I question whether student campaigning is effective and, arguably more importantly, respected, Brady answers positively, telling me that she believes “student politics ends up being an indication of what the general and wider population believe, which is important for governments to pay attention to”.
When we discuss the future of the campaign, Brady says there is “a long road to go before we have bodily autonomy and abortion rights for women in this country”. The problem is, in her opinion, that we have “a political body and system that is unwilling to put the best foot forward to address the issue”. There has been a failure in Irish history for referendums to be fulfilled and legislated upon. Brady notes the “empty divorce” referendum in 1996, where the subsequent government failed to legislate upon the amendment and make divorce accessible. As we finish, Brady makes the prediction that we will still be campaigning for abortion rights in 20 years time. We will have to wait and see if students remain at the forefront of it.