Canada has just announced it will drop its lifetime ban on gay men giving blood for a deferral period of five years in which time gay men must remain celibate.
Here are five reasons this supposed change adds up to little more than a bad joke.
1. The Lifetime Ban Repeal is Virtually Meaningless
The lifetime ban has been in place for the past 30 years. As such, the change announced by Canadian Blood Services, which it hopes to have in place by mid-summer, has been called “a very significant change.”
It’s really not a change at all.
A lifetime ban reduced to a five year abstinence mandate on men who have sex with men (MSM) adds up to the same thing:
Gay men who are sexually active, regardless of whether they are in monogamous relationships or practicing safe-sex, are still banned from donating blood.
Even the Canadian Blood Services, while lauding what good work they’ve done, have had to recognize this.
“So the message to them today is to simply bear with us,” Dana Devine, vice-president of medical, scientific and research affairs at Canadian Blood Services, is quoted as saying.
“We are working toward attempting to make the opportunity for additional people to donate blood … and we just aren’t quite there yet for that group of people.”
How many gay men do you know who have been abstinent for the past five years? The proportion of the population is incredibly small.
In fact, the only people this may functionally benefit are priests. The jokes write themselves.
2. The 5 Year Deferral Period is Entirely Unnecessary
This foot-dragging is being lauded as a good first step with more action to be taken once the blood service has finished data gathering.
Here’s the rub: the studying has already been done and screening methods are already incredibly sophisticated.
Testing has historically relied on something called the ELISA method which screens for immune system responses to viral infection, like the presence of antibodies.
The ELISA method, while sensitive and still in use today in most countries, has a drawback. HIV infection can take as long as three to six months, though usually about 22 days, to present.
This is also where the questionnaire screenings come in.
Through a series of questions asked prior to taking blood, it can be determined if a potential donor is at a high risk of contaminating the supply.
This currently includes history of intravenous drug use, residency in countries with a high rate of HIV such as sub-Saharan Africa, those who engage in prostitution, and, of course, a history of same-sex sexual encounters among men.
With these tests and the good faith of blood donors already assumed, the system when working properly is robust enough to catch infection risk at multiple points.
You will note though that the questionnaire categories betray a false comparison.
Intravenous drug use is a particular behavior that creates a greater risk of infection.
Having sex with another man does not of itself generate such risks, yet the ban hinges on this idea. This is discriminatory and, as you will see below, it is easy to show precisely why it is unfair.
3. The Ban Still Treats Gay Men As Though Being Gay Is A Health Risk
The ban’s logic goes like this:
- Men who have sex with men are more likely to engage in anal sex.
- Unprotected anal sex dramatically increases the risk of HIV transmission among men who have sex with men.
- Therefore, all men who have sex with men must be considered high risk.
Add to this the following, antiquated assumptions:
- Gay men are promiscuous and do not engage in safe sex.
- Expression of homosexuality is diseased.
True, these won’t appear on any formal policy paper, but it is the prevailing bad logic. How do we know this?
It is the only reason why you would target gay men and not target, well, straight men.
Straight men are just as capable of having multiple sexual partners and practicing unsafe sex. Polls show (ha!) they also engage in anal sex.
Why is a straight man given the okay to be as bed hopping, carefree and potentially contaminating as he likes, while a gay man in a monogamous relationship who has maintained good sexual practices throughout his life is still targeted by the ban?
At the rise of the HIV epidemic, when HIV was thought of as a gay disease, this policy may have seemed prudent. As other nations have now shown, it is archaic and outmoded.
4. Allowing Gay Men to Donate Blood Has Been Done
On Christmas Day 2012, Mexico changed its ban on gay men donating blood for a policy that instead focuses on risky behavior among the population regardless of their sexual orientation.
Mexico’s new rules ban people with hepatitis or HIV and their partners from donating blood. It also identifies “risky sexual practices” and defines them in a sensible and deliberate way.
These include “contact or exchange of blood, sexual secretions or other bodily secretions between someone who might have a transmittable disease and areas of another person’s body through which an infectious agent might be able to penetrate.”
During its review process, Mexico officials noted that there would be a slight statistical increase in risk created by incorporating gay men. That can’t be argued against.
However, they concluded this could easily be mitigated by the stringent screening practices that were already in place.
If Canada can manage to fix its lapses in blood stock handling, there appears no reason why it should be any different.
Also, for Mexico’s national blood supply, which around the world lives in a state of shortage, the potential benefits of lifting the ban far outweighed the slight increase in risk.
With that, we can also see that Canada’s five year deferral fails a most basic of tests: increasing the blood supply.
5. Canada’s Blood Donation Rule Change Won’t Increase Blood Stocks
The amount of people affected by this change to Canada’s blood donation policy stands to be so small that there will be little positive benefit for blood stocks.
The discriminatory policy, then, is still endangering lives because it treats gay people as though they are, in and of themselves, health risks and therefore bars them from giving blood when blood stocks are always low and, on occasion, dangerously so.
To be clear, Canada isn’t the only country with this kind of nonsensical policy.
The United Kingdom has instituted a similar one year deferral policy, while a number of European and Commonwealth nations still cling to similar discriminatory bans.
It is a shame, however, that after such a drawn out process, this is the best that Canadian Blood Services could manage.
Meanwhile, the United States is still considering its lifetime ban. Hopefully, U.S. officials will see the sense of gauging risk by behavior and not by identity, but it remains unclear if there is any real chance of meaningful action.
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