Nicola Sturgeon: Scottish Government is exploring free NHS abortions for Northern Ireland women

22 June, 2017

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that the Scottish Government is exploring whether to remove financial barriers within NHS Scotland imposed upon women normally resident in Northern Ireland who cross the Irish Sea to access safe and legal abortion. She first announced that this policy would be considered in November 2016, depending upon the outcome of a Supreme Court case, a decision on which came back last week. Humanists UK is petitioning Sturgeon, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones to commit to just such a change, and has welcomed Sturgeon’s renewed commitment.

Sturgeon’s confirmation comes in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling, last week, which found that charges of up to £2,000 imposed by NHS England on Northern Ireland women travelling over to have an abortion are lawful. Humanists UK intervened in the case. It was not an unanimous decision, with two of the five judges finding that such charges did constitute discriminatory treatment and could not be justified. The judgment concluded that the abolition of these charges was a political decision and the power to do so lies with the Secretary of State for Health in England and the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe, such that abortion is unlawful in all but the most extreme cases. Abortion is currently not permitted in instances where the pregnancy has resulted from a sexual crime, such as incest or rape, nor if there has been a diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality. The criminal sanctions imposed in Northern Ireland are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. However, the law does not prohibit women resident in Northern Ireland from travelling to Britain to access abortion services. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 women do so every year.  

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘This confirmation by Scotland’s First Minister that a change in NHS Scotland’s policy being explored is welcome news. All women, regardless of which part of the country they reside in, should have equal access to free, state-provided, legal abortion services.

‘In addition to the travel and accommodation costs involved in journeying to Britain, this charge imposes a further undue financial and emotional burden upon Northern Ireland women and in our view that represents a fundamental breach of their human rights. We urge Nicola Sturgeon to lead this proposal through to fruition and abolish these charges. We also call upon the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff to follow the lead laid down by the Scottish Government on this issue.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 020 3675 0959, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

Sign our petition calling on Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones to allow Northern Irish women free access to NHS abortions:

Read more about the case including the judgment on the Supreme Court’s website:

Read Humanists UKs story on the outcome of the case:

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

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