ONE of Scotland’s leading Catholic clerics said the First Minister’s consideration of meeting the costs of abortions for Ulster women would disrespect the democratic will of Northern Ireland.

John Keenan, Bishop of Paisley, said he was “very disappointed” in claims by Nicola Sturgeon that she would explore the possibility of the NHS in Scotland paying for abortions of women travelling across the North Channel to have the procedure legally carried out.

Writing on his Facebook page, Bishop Keenan, seen by many as a future Archbishop and potential cardinal, said: “If the Irish choose to respect life who are we to say we know better!”

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The comments comes as a new abortion bill is set to begin its passage through the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The private bill seeks to legalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and if passed would enable women in that situation to access a legal termination in Northern Ireland.

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.

The First Minister said she would consider the issue following questions from Greens leader Patrick Harvie and last week confirmed that the Government would explore how to allow Northern Irish women to obtain free access to abortions in Scotland.

During her visit to Dublin she said ministers would hold talks with health chiefs, with the NHS elsewhere in the UK refusing to pay for abortions for women from Northern Ireland who travel to Britain.

But Bishop Keenan said: “Very disappointed in the First Minister saying she will consider arrangements and improvements for offering NHS abortions in Scotland to women living in Ireland.

“Apart from anything else it is surely only right to respect the democratic will of the Northern Irish people and the decision of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

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Responding to one poster who described the First Minister as an appalling woman, Bishop Keenan said: “I am not meaning to make any party political point, much less to pass judgement on the character of our First Minister, which is not an issue for us, but really to express disappointment at the response she gave.

“Procured abortion is always wrong and a terrible thing and as the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act approaches why not all of us, politicians included, be thinking, not of more access to it, but of being engaged in a concerted effort to find alternatives to it, in the conviction that there’s always a better choice than abortion.”

The comments, revealed by the Scottish Catholic Observer, come a week after Jim Wells, a former Stormont health minister, told the publication that the First Minister’s comments where “extremely unhelpful, unwarranted and she’d be better off dealing with her own issues”.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and their elected representatives, to make decisions about the provision of healthcare in their jurisdictions.”

“The Scottish Government position is that all women in Scotland should have access to safe and legal abortion services within the law, should they require it, and that abortion care should be part of standard healthcare provisions, free from stigma.”

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A spokesman for the Scottish Catholic Church said: “In offering to fund abortions for women coming to Scotland, politicians ignore the reality that abortion damages women and destroys a human life. There is always a better solution than abortion.”