14/02/2017 12:09 GMT | Updated 14/02/2018 05:12 GMT

I Can't Believe I Once Prayed Outside An Abortion Clinic

Image Source via Getty Images

I find this difficult to write because I was against abortion for many years. I held the religious belief that life begins at conception and therefore abortion is wrong. Recent events have reminded us that this religious belief is still influential in our world; with protests in Ireland for abortion to be made legal and Trump acting on his anti-abortion campaign rhetoric.

Since I left the Catholic priesthood I've been able to suspend my belief and consider the arguments on the subject. I want to be clear that my thoughts on the morality of abortion are currently undecided, but no matter what I believe I am certain that religious belief should not influence government policy and subsequently the life decisions of another person.

Six years ago when I was training to be a priest in the U.K. I would borrow the seminary car and - with some of the lads in my year group - we would travel across the city to pray outside an abortion clinic. We gathered on the path near the main gates for an hour every week and prayed out loud. We asked God to help the young girls we saw sat on the back seats of cars entering the carpark, the staff inside and what we believed to be the unborn life. We wanted our religious beliefs to impact those women's lives and that was the problem.

I am not sure why I thought standing outside on those cold afternoons was appropriate. Maybe I thought it would actually make a positive difference. I'm now certain it didn't. No woman arriving to have an abortion was comforted by our presence. Why would they have been when we obviously felt their actions were so bad that praying quietly at church wasn't enough - we had to gather outside and pray aloud for all to see and hear us. I now realise the unnecessary guilt and shame our presence may have caused and this is something I deeply regret.

Although Trump is currently pushing an anti-abortion agenda he has changed his stance so many times that it is unclear what he personally believes. It is, however, abundantly clear that his Vice-President Mike Pence is staunchly anti-abortion. He was raised Roman Catholic and converted to Evangelical Christianity in college, so maybe that's no surprise. Pence has every right to believe life begins at conception. However when government policy that can harm women is influenced by his scientifically unsupported belief then we are in dangerous territory. Religious belief influencing policy in America is nothing new given that the last Republican president thought God told him he should invade Iraq.

We have also been reminded recently that abortion is still against the law in Ireland and has been since 1861. This law influenced by the historic power held by the Roman Catholic Church is another case of religious belief interfering in the lives of people who do not follow those beliefs. Last week I was informed on social media that criminalising abortion doesn't stop abortion it just makes it unsafe - Ireland has proved this point. As it's women seek out unsafe abortions or are forced to travel long distances for a safe procedure, laws based on religious belief are causing women to suffer.

Last summer I attended the comedian Louis C.K.'s show at Wembley Arena in London. Louis is pro-choice but he argued that you would have to be a psychopath to believe life begins at conception and then not think abortion is wrong. I agree with him and that's why I think - for the sake of women's rights - religious belief should be kept as far as possible from government and abortion clinics.

Religious belief is only that - an assumption that something is true even if scientific evidence is lacking. There is no evidence that life begins at conception, however because there is a lack of scientific consensus religion is inclined to plug the gap with belief. Before the theory of evolution religion told us it was God who created humans, before the discovery of gravity it was angels who spun the world on its axis, and before the big bang theory God placed the heavenly bodies into space. Currently the belief that life begins at conception is plugging the scientific gap of consensus. I don't think scientists know if they will ever find the answer to when life begins. Nonetheless it is the nature of science to look for evidence and not muddy the waters with belief.

Religious beliefs have influenced many people to do good in the world, but when religious beliefs harm other people then a line has been crossed. I support freedom of religion, but I also support freedom from religion.