The Minister for Health has reiterated that he wants to introduce abortion services from January 2019.

Speaking at the AGM of the National Women's Council, Simon Harris said that there are a number of legal challenges to the referendum result and he respects the court must do its work.

He said he has asked the Attorney General and his department officials to advise on the introduction of exclusion zones at maternity hospitals so that women and staff do not have to be subjected to offensive images.

He said it is sad and regrettable to contemplate such zones but he does want them in place.

Officials will advise on whether exclusion zones will be done through health legislation or through local authorities, Mr Harris said.

He said the zones must be about sending out the message that pregnant women and health care professionals have rights to access health care without being disrupted by offensive material.

The Minister said he wants to provide terminations as part of the public health service and he will make sure there is no barrier to access because of affordability or geography.

He said introducing a system that still forces women to travel would be a failure on the Government's part.

Speaking at the AGM, National Women's Council Director Orla O'Connor said abortion should be available as part of the public healthcare system and costs should not in any way be a barrier to restrict access to services.

She said the AGM is an historic occasion as the organisation had campaigned for decades for repeal of the Eighth Amendment which ended one of the  greatest discriminations against women.

She said their priority now is to have the legislation put though as quickly as possible.

It comes as Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Dr Alphonsus Cullinan said Catholic hospitals need to resist performing abortions "at all costs" and medical professionals should have the right to oppose carrying them out.

The Irish Catholic newspaper reports the bishop as saying that many Irish people working in healthcare entered their professions to do good rather than harm.

He added that such professionals have the right to refuse to participate in a procedure or administer a treatment which, in their professional opinion, is unethical or simply not good medicine.

He told the paper: "Forcing the staff in a Catholic hospital to act against their ethos is not consistent with tolerance, openness and respect. And the Catholic institution should resist, at all costs, being forced to act against deeply held beliefs."

Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that patrons or owners of publicly-funded hospitals would not be allowed to opt out of providing abortions under legislation the Government is preparing that gives effect to last month's referendum vote which empowered the Oireachtas to regulate abortion. 

"... it will not be possible for publicly funded hospitals, no matter who their patron or owner is, to opt out of providing these necessary services, which will be legal in the State once the legislation is passed by the Dáil and the Seanad," Mr Varadkar said.

But Bishop Cullinan told the paper that a Catholic hospital in an "open and tolerant society" should be respected and be allowed to uphold its ethos in full, adding that it is his sincere hope that the right to conscientious objection will be truly cherished and respected".

"Isn't it strange that, on one side people who voted 'Yes', are being lauded for following their conscience and now we are trying to coerce people into doing something against their conscience? This is unjust," he said. 

The paper also quotes a spokesperson for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin as saying there was "nothing new" in what the Taoiseach had said.

"It is the law in Ireland since 2013" (when the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act empowered hospitals to carry out terminations where the life of the mother was at risk).

"The Archbishop is unaware of any conflict situation in that time," the spokesperson continued. "Hospitals can only carry out procedures for which they are commissioned and have specific capacity."