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Nicola Sturgeon 'happy' to explore possibility of helping Northern Irish women obtain abortions in Scotland

By Claire Williamson

Published 17/11/2016

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has offered to explore the possibility that women from Northern Ireland could access abortions through the NHS in Scotland without facing prohibitive costs.

First Minister Sturgeon made the assurance while responding to a question from Patrick Harvie MSP during First Minister's Questions on Thursday in the Scottish Parliament.

Stormont has been under increasing pressure to change its current stance on abortion, which is only available in hospitals here if there is a direct threat to the mother's life.

More than 830 women travelled to English hospitals and clinics from here in 2015 to have terminations, all of whom had to raise the money to pay for the procedure themselves.

Women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free NHS abortions in England which is currently being challenged at the Supreme Court.

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Green co-convener Patrick Harvie asked the First Minister to explore what can be done through the NHS in Scotland to break down the "financial barrier".

He asked: "Many women in Northern Ireland find themselves with no option but to travel elsewhere in the UK to access legal and safe abortion. The time that that takes and the stress that it causes are bad enough, but there are also often significant financial barriers. Some organisations who support those women estimate that, at the low end, the process costs about £400 and, in many other cases, it costs more than £2,000.

"Does the First Minister agree that the national health service in Scotland should be exploring what can be done to ensure that those women are able to access abortion in Scotland, if that is where they choose to travel to, without facing that kind of unacceptable financial barrier?"

In response Mrs Sturgeon said she was happy to explore if any improvements could be made.

She said: "I am happy to explore with the NHS what the situation is now in terms of the ability of women from Northern Ireland to access safe and legal abortion in NHS Scotland and whether any improvements can be made.

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

"When a woman opts to have an abortion—I stress that that is never, ever an easy decision for any woman—the procedure should be available in a safe and legal way. That is my view. Patrick Harvie asked me to explore a particular issue for NHS Scotland and I am happy to do so."

Mr Harvie added that abortion should be treated as part of normal healthcare and not "stigmatised".

Mrs Sturgeon continued: "I certainly agree that no woman should ever be stigmatised for having an abortion. No woman ever wants to have an abortion; there will be a variety of circumstances in which a woman finds herself in that position, and I absolutely agree that safe abortion is of paramount importance.

"I also agree that abortion should never be seen in isolation — it is a part of healthcare, and delivering abortion safely is a fundamental part of healthcare."

While political opinion in Northern Ireland remains divided on the sensitive issue, the DUP have consistently opposed widespread access to abortion.

In a statement responding to the comments a DUP spokesman said: "The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide.

"It is a matter for the Scottish Government to decide how they operate and pay for NHS services in Scotland."

The commitment from Scotland's First Minister has been welcomed by Amnesty International.

Amnesty’s Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan said: “Responsibility for delivering healthcare to women and girls in Northern Ireland sits squarely with the Northern Ireland Executive.

“But, given the utter human rights failure of Northern Ireland’s Ministers to provide free, safe and legal abortion healthcare for women and girls here, we welcome the commitment of Scotland’s First Minister to explore what can be done via NHS Scotland.

“The UN Human Rights Committee recently ruled that Northern Ireland’s laws prohibiting and criminalising abortion constitute a human rights violation. The Scottish Government could help lessen the harsh financial impact of that violation by allowing women from Northern Ireland to access abortions free of charge on the NHS.

“While this would be a welcome and helpful step, it is no substitute for the Northern Ireland Executive putting its own house in order with respect to significant reform of our scandalous abortion laws.

“The fact that Scotland’s First Minister is now exploring what she can do to help women and girls from Northern Ireland is an indictment of the failure of Northern Ireland own’s First Minister, Executive colleagues and the Assembly.”

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