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Scots cleric raps Sturgeon for call urging Northern Ireland women to seek an abortion there

By Sophie Inge

Nicola Sturgeon has come under fire from a senior cleric over her suggestion that women from Northern Ireland could access NHS abortions in Scotland.

Bishop John Keenan of Paisley described the Scottish First Minister's comments as "very disappointing".

"If the Irish choose to respect life, who are we to say we know better?" he told the Scottish Catholic Observer.

"Apart from anything else, it is surely only right to respect the democratic will of the Northern Irish people and the decision of the Northern Irish Assembly."

In Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is allowed only if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health.

The Scottish First Minister weighed into the controversy last month.

During First Minister's Questions at Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon was asked by Green MSP Patrick Harvie: "Does the First Minister agree that the NHS in Scotland should be exploring what can be done to ensure that these women are able to access abortion in Scotland, if that's where they chose to travel to, without facing these kind of unacceptable financial barriers?"

Ms Sturgeon replied: "I am happy to explore that with the NHS. To explore both what the situation would be right now in terms of accessing safe and legal abortion for women from Northern Ireland within NHS Scotland, and whether there's any improvements that are able to be made.

"I believe, like Patrick Harvie, that women should have the right to choose within the limits that we currently set down in law, and I believe that right should be defended."

Her comments sparked a backlash from pro-lifers in Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal except for cases where the woman's health is at risk.

Bernie Smyth, director of pro-life group Precious Life, described Mrs Sturgeon's comments as "outrageous". "She needs to butt her nose out of Northern Irish politics," she told the Belfast Telegraph at the time.

Following Bishop Keenan's remarks, a spokesman from the Scottish Catholic Church added: "In offering to fund abortions for women coming to Scotland, politicians ignore the reality that abortion damages women and destroys a human life.

"Women and girls in a crisis pregnancy need support. There is always a better solution than abortion. Our legislators should be defending the weakest and most vulnerable in society, not exposing them to death."

Last year more than 830 women travelled to England and Wales for a termination.

Northern Ireland women are not legally entitled to free NHS abortions in England following a High Court ruling in 2014, which is being challenged at the UK Supreme Court.

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