WOMEN forced to travel from Northern Ireland for a legal abortion may have the cost of their operations met by the NHS in Scotland, the First Minister said yesterday.

Nicola Sturgeon agreed to explore the possibility after the issue was raised by Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie at First Minister’s Questions.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, which was never covered by the 1967 Act legalising it in the rest of the UK, and an estimated 2000 women a year travel for terminations, most to England, often paying between £400 and £2000 at a private clinic.

Mr Harvie said it was “tragic” some women in the UK had no right to a safe, legal abortion, and that it should be treated as part of normal healthcare, not “stigmatised”.

He said: “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?

"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: “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."

Over the last decade, 15 to 45 women per year who were not resident in Scotland had an abortion on the Scottish NHS, according to official figures.

It is not known how many were from Northern Ireland.

The First Minister’s office later said she was “very sympathetic” to Mr Harvie’s idea.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Harvie said: “I'm pleased the First Minister agreed with my suggestion to explore this issue with NHS Scotland.

“The stress and costs that women in Northern Ireland face is simply unacceptable, and Scotland has the opportunity to provide much-needed support.

“While abortion is never an easy decision, it should be viewed as a normal part of healthcare. The idea that we would refuse to provide such a service on the basis of where someone is from is simply unacceptable. I look forward to hearing further from the First Minister on this issue."

Clare Bailey MLA of the Green Party of Northern Ireland added: “The time for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland is long overdue. The Green party trust women to make their own choices. It’s time our legislators did."

Abortion is only available in Northern Ireland when there is a direct threat to the mother’s life if the pregnancy continues.

Last year a high court judge ruled the region's abortion laws violate the rights of women in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where a pregnancy is the result of sexual crime.

However in February this year Northern Ireland Assembly members refused to legalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

The Northern Ireland health and justice departments both failed to respond to requests for comment.