Scottish talks on free abortions for Northern Irish women
NHS has refused to pay for abortions for women from North who travel to Britain
Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Denis O’Donovan and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke
Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed the Scottish government is to explore how to allow Northern Irish women to obtain free access to abortions in Scotland’s NHS hospitals.
Scotland’s first minister, during a visit to Dublin on Tuesday, said the Edinburgh devolved government will hold talks with the Scottish NHS that may enable women from Northern Ireland to have terminations for free on the health service.
Across the UK, the NHS has so far refused to pay for abortions for women from Northern Ireland who travel to Britain. The procedure is only available in Northern Ireland’s hospitals when the pregnancy poses a direct threat to the mother’s life.
It is illegal in all other cases.
Last week Patrick Harvie MSP, the leader of the Green party in the Scottish parliament, said that it can cost between £400 and £2,000 for a woman from Northern Ireland to obtain an abortion at a private clinic in Britain.
The supreme court in London is considering an application from a Northern Irish teenager who, as a 15-year-old, had to go to England to terminate a pregnancy. She is challenging the NHS’s refusal to fund abortions for women from Northern Ireland.
“I was asked a question specifically in parliament about the scenario where a woman from Northern Ireland chooses to access an abortion in Scotland and whether they should be charged for that or not,” Ms Sturgeon said. “Now I said that we would explore that, so we are looking in terms of the process and will discuss with the NHS what would happen now routinely, and whether there are options to change that, to make the process safer for the women concerned.
“My view is that if a woman is going to access an abortion then the important thing is that it is as safe as possible . . . I am not putting a timescale on it, but I will report back to parliament in due course.”
An estimated 2,000 women a year have to raise the money to travel to private English clinics and hospitals from Northern Ireland to have terminations.
However, there is strong opposition from both unionist and nationalist members of the Northern Ireland assembly to liberalising the province’s strict anti-abortion laws. The Abortion Act 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland and an attempt to ease the law to include cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancy via sexual crime was rejected this year.
Ms Sturgeon was speaking at an event organised by IBEC, the Irish employers organisation, on day two of her official visit to Ireland. Later she will become the first leader of Scotland to address the Irish parliament when she will deliver a speech in its upper house, the Seanad.
Before her lunchtime speech, Sturgeon said she would continually press London to retain an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and this was central to her discussions with the British government over the impact of Brexit.
“It is absolutely essential to maintain an open border … It is important to emphasise the unique status of Ireland, the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, and keeping an open border. Out of all of the things that we no doubt find disagreements on in terms of Brexit – what does it mean and what paths the UK take – I would hope that something everybody in the UK and also in the European Union can agree on is that there has to be solutions found to avoid some of the implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland,” she said.
She also addressed what she called the “ill will” that exists between London and Brussels since the EU referendum.
“I don’t think ill will on this is inevitable but I think it will occur if the UK continues to display the kind of attitude towards this whole situation that it has been doing,” Sturgeon said. “But I don’t think ill will is inevitable and that is related to the issue of a plan.
“If the UK gets itself into a position that is clear, reasonable about what it’s trying to achieve then there may be scope to have a relatively harmonious process that delivers a compromise position.
“There is no plan at present and anyone who tries to suggest otherwise is just indulging in hope over reality. I think Whitehall has been discovering day by day just how complicated the whole situation is. Do I have confidence that there will be a coherent plan? As I say, the jury is out on that and it is still not highly clear to me how the UK gets from where it is now to having a clear consistent plan by the end of March.”