Women from Northern Ireland 'may be granted access to NHS abortion services in Scotland'
SCOTTISH first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will look into women from Northern Ireland accessing NHS abortions in Scotland without facing prohibitive costs.
Abortions are illegal in Northern Ireland except for cases where the woman's health is at risk, and that has led to women travelling to the UK seeking to terminate their pregnancies.
During First Minister's Questions at Holyrood, Green co-convener Patrick Harvie said: "Many women in Northern Ireland find themselves left with no option but to travel elsewhere in the UK to access legal and safe abortion.
"The time and the stress that this costs them is bad enough but there are also significant financial barriers, with some organisations supporting these women estimating that at the low end it costs them at least £400 and in many other cases more than £2,000.
"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?"
He said abortion should be treated as part of normal healthcare and not "stigmatised".
He asked: "Is there any other part of the normal range of healthcare provision where the NHS in Scotland would turn people away simply because of where they happen to live, if they are in Scotland and seeking that service?"
Ms Sturgeon said: "I certainly agree that no woman should ever be stigmatised for having an abortion. No woman wants to ever have an abortion, there will be a variety of circumstances in which a woman finds herself in that position."
She said abortion should not be seen in isolation and is a fundamental part of healthcare.
She added: "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.
"And when a woman, any woman, does opt to have an abortion, and let's stress that is never, ever an easy decision for any woman, then abortion should be available in a safe and legal way."
Northern Irish women are not legally entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England following a High Court ruling in 2014, which is being challenged in a legal action at the UK Supreme Court.
Amnesty International has welcomed Ms Sturgeon's comments.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, said the UN Human Rights Committee had 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."