Cabinet has approved the introduction of legislation on "safe access zones" which propose a buffer of 100 metres around any healthcare facilities that can provide termination of pregnancy.

Under the proposed laws anti-abortion protesters could be fined or jailed for demonstrating outside healthcare settings.

This will, in effect, see the introduction of exclusion zones around all hospitals, all GP practices and Well Woman or Irish Family Planning Association services.

Cork-based GP Dr Mary Favier has welcomed the move.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Dr Favier said: "It has been exceptionally difficult for our patients to come into our surgery and take the risk of having protesters.

"For instance, there have been protests at my practice even on days when I'm not there (with) no abortion provision taking place but all patients being harassed and staff being harassed.

"It's not a particularly common problem but when it does occur it's very persistent. In our practice we've had a few episodes of it, but in some practices, particularly in rural areas, it's been really persistent.

"Numbers of people gather outside surgeries with placards, shouting and shaming people as they come in, all patients and not just patients accessing abortion services.

"We're really looking forward to the fact that it will remove this intimidation.

"We really respect the right to protest and that's a really important thing that we would acknowledge but in the appropriate place. Not in front of healthcare settings."

The laws would prohibit, within these buffer zones, any activity that is intended to, or may reasonably have the effect of, influencing the decision of a person in relation to availing of or providing services relating to termination of pregnancy.

This would include protests such as the one that took place outside the National Maternity Hospital when picketers carried banners and white crosses.

A graduated system of penalties is proposed, starting with a warning from gardaí.

Some offences would be prosecuted summarily and more serous offences could be indictable before a judge and jury, with penalties including a jail sentence.

It is hoped the legislation can begin the process of pre-legislative scrutiny in September and can be introduced before the end of the year.

The latest figures show that 11 of 19 maternity hospitals offer abortion services nationwide, as do one in 10 GPs.

"We know that 11 or 12% of GPs are providers," Dr Favier said.

"That works out at about one in three practices having a GP provider in them. We know it's larger in the urban areas. We know it’s particularly challenging particularly in the mid and north west.

"The threat of protest in those areas has been really significant. I know GPs have become very upset but particularly their staff who’ve been hugely supportive in the provision of this new service.

"It’s not just patients seeking abortion care, it’s any patient.

"Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favour of this service and since then have really expressed strong support for this legislation."

Also speaking on Drivetime, Independent Senator Rónán Mullen said that he did not think there was a need for safe access zones.

"It was clear from the Gardai going right back to 2019 that there was no need for this," he said.

"They pointed out that the laws were clearly in place to deal with any behaviour that we would all consider unacceptable.

"And yet as late as February 2022 you have Minister Donnelly saying in the Seanad that he disagrees with advice from the Gardaí about this.

"I would be very surprised if there’s any real basis to the claim that’s being made today that 14% of people are in some way being unacceptably harassed.

"If it is happening it should certainly be dealt with. The legislation is there to deal with it.

"Abortion is a very grave issue. A life is lost every time.

"We’re having very little discussion about the fact that since abortion was legalised there has been a major increase in the number of abortions taking place".

The laws have been promised since the introduction of the Health (regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act of 2008.

But the Government had claimed that a number of legal issues were identified that necessitated further consideration.

Last year, the Abortion Rights Campaign accused the Government of failing to deliver on the commitment.

In response to the bill, Eilís Mulroy of the Pro Life Campaign said the plan "sets a very dangerous precedent for denying freedom of expression and the right to peacefully assemble in public areas".

She added: "No one wants to see people harassed when approaching a hospital or GP surgery.

"Were such incidents to occur, the authorities already have wide-ranging powers to deal with the situation under existing public order laws.

"The fact that citizens could be jailed under this proposal for silently expressing a position in public is utterly alarming."