A tentative move to erode the prohibitive position over abortion in Northern Ireland may become a landmark shift, now that the issue has been raised. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is open to the suggestion as reported by the Guardian, that woman from Northern Ireland could have abortions performed free in Scotland under NHS devolution.
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.
Last November, a high court judge ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violated the rights of women and girls in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where a pregnancy was the result of a sexual crime.
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.
The Supreme Court in London is currently considering an application from a Northern Irish teenager who, as a15-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.
The local reaction is predictable. The Belfast Telegraph reports that DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was disappointed in Ms Sturgeon for seeking to “interfere in what is a very sensitive issue here in Northern Ireland”.
“The Northern Ireland Executive would never consider interfering in Scottish internal affairs,” the Lagan Valley MP told the Belfast Telegraph.
“And I really do think the Scottish First Minister should concentrate on sorting out the economic problems in Scotland and leave Northern Ireland to sort out its own issues.
SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said she would adopt a “wait and see” attitude towards the announcement, although the party remained opposed to relaxing the law in Northern Ireland.
“We are also awaiting the outcome of a review into the guidelines governing abortion in Northern Ireland,” the South Down MP added.
“We have to await the outcome of what the First Minister of Scotland said, what the extent of her explorations is, and the outcome of the current review of guidelines.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London