Former UCD student president Katie Ascough talks to Susan Gately about winning the prestigious Westminster Award
One defining moment in Katie Ascough’s life was when she held her dead baby brother in her hand. Her mother, Jaclyn, had miscarried at home. “I remember holding him in the palm of my hand and being shocked by his incredibly human details at just 13 weeks. He had fingernails and even creases on his knuckles. He had a full body and a face, with perfect little ears. He was so perfectly human, only small,” she recounts.
Fortunately he was not her only sibling, and the lively Dublin girl grew up as the “oldest of seven wild and wonderful children” to parents Tom and Jaclyn. In her late teens she went to University College Dublin to study science where she shot to fame as the surprise winner of the Students’ Union presidential elections in March 2017, garnering 36% of first preference votes. It was a very unusual situation as Ascough was known to be pro-life and UCDSU had adopted a pro-choice mandate the previous November.
From that moment she said, she felt she was walking around with a “target on her back”.
“From five minutes after I was elected, some students started calling for my impeachment because I was pro-life and it was some of those exact same students who led the impeachment process in October,” she told The Irish Catholic this week.
The impeachment finally arose four months into her term. Ascough had promised to remain neutral on abortion, but felt she had to withdraw abortion information from the Winging It student magazine on the advice of the SU solicitor who said the distribution of the books was “almost certainly illegal”.
“The core of it was that nobody should be forced to break the law against their will,” she said.
Opponents insisted this was not the case. The information had been published before without legal consequences. Ascough had promised to remain neutral on the Eighth Amendment when elected, she had broken that promise they said.
Her impeachment in October 2017 endorsed their views, with 69% of the 6,600 ballots cast (20% of the possible electorate) voting to remove Ascough as president. During that time, little was heard from Katie Ascough herself. “It was a hectic time. From memory my focus was on the impeachment process, it was on UCD, it wasn’t really my main objective to engage in national news.”
However, after her ousting as president, she put her side of the events to the public in one-on-one interviews with Pat Kenny and Marian Finnucane. After a time away, in December she began do work for the Pro Life campaign (PLC).
The UCD impeachment remains a formative experience. The hardest thing, she says, was having erstwhile friends turn against her. “I understand that they were under pressure, there was a lot of misinformation.”
Last Tuesday in London, Katie Ascough was awarded the Westminster Award for Human Life, Human Rights, and Human Dignity. “I don’t know if I’d call it a vindication,” she says. It was definitely a happy ending to the whole impeachment process and everything that went with it.
“I was blown away by the whole experience,” she says, which included a tour of the Houses of Lords and Commons, tea in the Palace of Westminster, and addressing a group of around 50 people in the Committee Room of the House of Lords. Irish Catholic columnist Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Fiona Bruce MP, the chairperson of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group in Westminster and Lord David Alton also spoke.
Lord Alton, said Ms Ascough’s example would inspire many to “stand for the rights of all the vulnerable, and insist on the space and liberty to work on campus or in medicine with a clear conscience according to their best moral principles”.
In response Ascough said she hoped the award would give “hope and inspiration to every single pro-life person who is out there – who is struggling to live out their pro-life views in a hostile environment”.
To all those who feel belittled or silenced or oppressed for being pro-life – this award is for you, she said.
She concluded, “I’m asking you to fight for your right to speak your mind. Fight for your right to have an opinion and live it fully and without fear. Fight for that right for your friends and family now, and for the generations to come. We might not be able to stop the tragedy of abortion today or tomorrow or next year, but we can do our part to be heard, to be brave, and to be proud to be pro-life.”
In her written speech Ascough described her biggest goal in life as a child – to “fit in” – wearing “matching bracelets, matching pyjamas” to her friends. “But imagine if we never grew out of it?” Yet, that type of conformity has an uncanny similarity to the public debate on abortion, she said.
While university culture remains strongly ‘pro repeal’ of the Eighth Amendment, she told The Irish Catholic that she sees hopeful signs for the future of free speech in universities. “People are starting to finally speak out. We’ve a long way to go but I’ve definitely seen more involvement with students on the life issue in the last few weeks and months. It has just been organic and really great to see. I do hope that it continues.”