ABORTION pills are being smuggled into the country by women who are putting their health at risk by terminating their pregnancies in secret, the Irish Independent has learned.
Trade in the illegal pills is growing, and customs officials have seized more than 1,800 pills in recent years.
The revelation about the extent of the problem comes as an expert group set up by Health Minister James Reilly finalises a report which is expected to recommend the introduction of abortion in limited circumstances in Ireland.
Most of the seized pills, known as abortifacients, were bought over the internet and intercepted before reaching the intended recipient. Many came from online pharmacies abroad that charge €87 for a packet of three pills.
Despite the seizures, authorities fear hundreds more are getting through.
The Irish Medicines Board (IMB) last year convicted a Chinese-owned supermarket business in Dublin after finding it was selling an illegal imported abortion pill, Mifepristone.
The drugs, which are legally administered in other jurisdictions, can cause miscarriage and should only be given to a woman in a clinic or hospital under medical supervision.
It is believed that Irish women deterred by the cost of an abortion abroad or driven underground by other circumstances are taking the pills at home, even though they are at risk of serious bleeding and infections.
A survey of 325 GPs, including 107 trainees, has shown more than 10pc of family doctors and one in seven trainees have had to treat a woman who had bought such pills.
One doctor said a foreign national was treated in his surgery after she underwent a "surgical backstreet abortion here".
Another told how a young girl took an overdose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory tablets to induce a miscarriage.
Mark Murphy, the Sligo doctor who surveyed his colleagues, said 22 GPs and 15 trainees told him they had knowledge of female patients who had taken an illegal abortifacient.
An IMB spokeswoman said 1,216 tablets in around 100 individual shipments were intercepted during 2009 and 2010.
Official figures for seizures in 2011 are not yet available, but they are expected to confirm the illegal trade is continuing.
The spokeswoman said: "The IMB strongly recommended that a woman should not obtain or self-medicate with such potent medicines."
One of the two main drugs being bought is Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, which is not licensed in Ireland.
It can be used for the medical termination of a pregnancy of up to nine weeks.
The other is Misoprostol, with the brand name Cytotec. It is used to treat and prevent ulcers in people on other medication, but it can cause miscarriage or premature labour.
The medications can be bought from several online pharmacies as well as from the online medical abortion service Women on the Web.
The most recent statistics show that 4,149 Irish women had terminations in UK clinics in 2010, falling for the 10th year in a row.
An estimated 31 travelled to the Netherlands.