STAFF at some taxpayer-funded pregnancy counselling services are putting women's lives at risk and breaking the law, an undercover probe has revealed.
The investigation was carried out over several months by a team of women, some from the pro-life movement, who secretly recorded counsellors at 11 locations around the country.
Some of the advice they gave about abortion was illegal, according to a leading lawyer, and some was medically dangerous, a top doctor says.
In several instances, women were told to hide their abortions from their doctors, a course of action that could endanger life if post-surgery abortion complications remain undiagnosed.
A small percentage of women suffer perforation of the womb following terminations, which can remain undetected but can cause problems in later pregnancies.
The Irish Independent has viewed and listened to the investigation tapes.
Following a five-hour examination of the material, the HSE has launched an investigation.
A spokesperson said that any potential breaches of the legislation will be pursued.
Gardai at Dublin's Store Street station are also looking into the findings of the probe.
At the Dundalk office of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), a client was told she could lie to her doctor about having had an abortion, advice that could put a woman's life at risk, Professor Sam Coulter Smith, the master of Dublin's Rotunda Hospital, has warned.
He said he was aware of cases where women have died because they did not tell their doctors they'd had a termination.
At two Dublin branches of the IFPA in Tallaght and Cathal Brugha Street, women were also told they could conceal their abortions from doctors.
The same advice was given by a HSE employee at Ballinasloe Crisis Pregnancy Support Service in Galway.
In response, Dr Simon Mills, a barrister and medical doctor, said: "It is definitely reckless and probably negligent advice to tell a woman to conceal from doctors something that may be a vital part of her medical history.
"This is especially the case if she presented unwell in the immediate aftermath of a termination and felt that she shouldn't tell her doctor about it when it could be the key piece of information to deliver prompt and life-saving treatment.
"If somebody turned around and said the reason I didn't tell my doctor was because a counsellor told me it wasn't necessary, civil liability would almost certainly arise and I think it is possible that criminal liability could too."
The revelations come a week after the first private abortion clinic on the island of Ireland opened its doors in Belfast.
The investigation was carried out by a group of women posing as pregnant clients. The research team, made up of 30 people, included teachers, lawyers and doctors. Some of them come from the pro-life movement.
They instigated the probe after receiving information that some pregnancy advice centres may be breaking the law.
The clinics involved are overseen and funded by the HSE's Crisis Pregnancy Programme (CPP).
This state body was set up to cut the number of unplanned pregnancies and the number of Irish women travelling for abortions by making the other two options of parenting and adoption more 'attractive'.
At the Tallaght and Cork branches of the IFPA, women were told how to get an abortion pill, which is illegal here, by smuggling it into the State through Northern Ireland.
The HSE has confirmed that crisis pregnancy counsellors should not provide information on how to get the abortion pill.
The pills induce an abortion by causing a miscarriage. They should only be taken under medical supervision because they can cause bleeding, severe infection or, in rare instances, death.
A leading constitutional lawyer, Paul Anthony McDermott, has said that telling somebody how to access and take an illegal drug could be seen as "aiding and abetting a crime".
Some of the results of the undercover recording show:
- At Dundalk IFPA, a woman was told: "Now when you go for medical attention they have no way of knowing that you have had an abortion. You need to say that you had a miscarriage. They will know you were pregnant but you need to say that you had a miscarriage."
- A counsellor at Tallaght IFPA told a woman how to import the abortion pill illegally. She said: "If you have an address in the North or you can buy a PO box number, and get them to send it . . . You can. . . then go and collect the tablets in the North and take them down here."
- At the Sexual Health Centre in Cork, another woman was told how to get an abortion pill. Her counsellor said: "I suppose I'm not encouraging you to break the law or get into trouble . . . but it can be done."
She also admitted that giving this sort of advice could get her arrested.
According to the HSE's CPP, information given by counselling services about abortion must be truthful, objective and must not involve the 'promotion or advocacy' of it.
Last year, more than €3.1m of public money was spent on crisis pregnancy services overseen by the HSE.
A spokeswoman for the organisation said the CPP would "agree whatever measures necessary with these agencies to ensure that the highest possible standard in crisis pregnancy counselling is provided within the existing legal framework".
In a statement, the IFPA said that "all of its counsellors set out to work in adherence with the law" and that its services operate "under protocols and procedures which take into account all legislative requirements".
An offer to review the audio and video evidence from the probe was declined by the organisation.
It was furnished with the transcripts of the investigation by the Irish Independent three weeks ago.
Eilis Mulroy, a Galway-based solicitor who was part of the research team and is a member of the pro-life movement, said: "We had heard that questionable practices were going on.
"The 1995 Abortion Information Act is very clear when it comes to the obligations of counsellors and the information they are allowed to give.
"But our investigation found that this legislation is being breached on a wide scale and that Irish women in crisis pregnancies are getting dangerous medical advice.
"This reflects a high level of contempt for their health and well-being, not to mention the law."
Last night, the Irish Medicines Board expressed "grave concern and disappointment" that healthcare professionals would give advice on how to source illegal medicines.
A spokesperson said: "This contradicts our consistent warnings against such practices. We would additionally be concerned in relation to abortifacients in that self-medication is not appropriate for such products."
The most recent statistics show that 4,149 Irish women had terminations in Britain in 2011.
The revelations come as an expert group set up by Health Minister James Reilly prepares to publish a report on whether abortion should be legalised in Ireland under limited circumstances.