Girls as young as nine are being secretly given pregnancy tests by nurses in accident and emergency departments.

A survey by Nursing Standard magazine at the Royal College of Nursing's A&E association conference in Cheshire yesterday showed that one in five emergency nurses were involved in the practice. The tests are being carried out, without their knowledge or that of their parents, on girls who complain of abdominal pain. One cause of abdominal pain can be an ectopic pregnancy – when the foetus grows outside the womb, – which requires emergency treatment.

According to the RCN's paediatric association, doctors in many departments decline to examine a girl with abdominal pain unless she has been tested. The practice of carrying out the test covertly was condemned last night by the Royal College of Nursing. Sue Burr, the college's adviser in paediatric nursing, said it was an "infringement of human rights".

She said doctors could order nurses to carry out tests to rule out an early pregnancy, for example if the patient is going to be sent for an X-ray which could harm a developing baby, but consent from the girl and parents should be sought.

Concerned members had contacted the RCN to reveal the covert tests were being conducted. Ms Burr said: "There should not be covert testing of any condition. They must tell the child or their parents and use common sense so it is not a waste of resources. You wouldn't carry out a test on a 60-year-old woman like me so why a little girl?"

Ms Burr, who has been nursing for more than 40 years, said the A&E association was trying to discover how common the practice was but insisted it was against official guidelines.

John Henry, professor of A&E medicine at St Mary's Hospital, London, told The Independent last night that he believed the practice was "probably fairly common".

He said: "If a girl presents with abdominal pain and she happens to be pregnant there is a risk she may have an ectopic pregnancy. That is an emergency which can blow at any time." If a girl or her parents were asked and refused a pregnancy test that could leave doctors treading a "very dodgy line". he said.

"The presumption is that when someone comes to hospital they want help and they consent to whatever helps them. But that has now all changed and you must ask first."

Robert Sowney, vice chairman of the RCN's A&E association, backed the call for consent. He told Nursing Standard: "I would rather know about it and I don't think I'm different from any other parent."