The Liberal Democrats, UK coalition government partners with the Conservatives, voted this week at the party’s conference in Birmingham on a motion saying that the UK’s recently announced one-year deferral period on gay men donating blood, which will replace a permanent ban, is still discriminatory.
Earlier this month the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissue and Organs announced that it had determined there would be no significant risk to blood recipients if the ban was shortened to a one year deferral period — meaning gay men can donate if they have not had sex with another man in the past twelve months.
The year deferral, health authorities argue, is still necessary because there is a period of about twelve months in which new HIV and hepatitis B infections can be very difficult to detect.
While many greeted this change as a step in the right direction, there was also condemnation that the ban still singles out gay men regardless of whether they are in a committed relationships and have practiced safe sex. By the same token, critics say the ban does not examine the sexual history of heterosexuals who are allowed to give blood without such restrictions.
This is an issue that the Liberal Democrats have now voted to push the Lib Dem-Conservative government to tackle.
According to ePolitix, Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert said: “Millions of men up and down the country could be potential blood donors and many of them wish to help people in need by donating blood.
“They are prevented from doing so by the stigma that all men who have sex with men engage in disproportionally risky behaviour.
“When it comes to donating blood, the safety of those receiving transfusions must always be paramount.
“Rather than issuing blanket bans, decisions should be based on an assessment of the risk which the behaviour of an individual poses regardless of whether they sleep with men or women.”
West Lothian graduate Dij Davies told delegates that he felt the deferral period was just “a ban by another name” and spoke of his own personal experience of the ban.
Davies shared with the audience his own experience of being prevented from donating blood for a life-saving transfusion to his mother because of his sexuality. The son of a friend who served in the Metropolitan police gave his blood, alongside a number of fellow officers who offered to help. “But I wasn’t allowed to donate. Her own son. I wasn’t even asked – all because I am gay,” he said.
He cited the case of a 74-year-old man who had donated blood 984 times because he had an antibody in his plasma that stopped babies dying from a form of severe anaemia. “If he was gay, 2.2 million babies would now be dead,” he said.
“The new rules are better – but they are still fundamentally flawed and do not adequately safeguard the blood bank,” he told delegates. “The deferral does not take into account whether men who have sex with men are using a condom or not; it doesn’t separate those in a relationship from those who engage with casual partners; and, crucially, it asks no such questions of the heterosexual population at all.”
The Liberal Democrat motion on the issue estimates that between 1 and 2 million extra people could be eligible to give blood should the rules change.
The motion calls on the lifetime ban and the 12-month deferral to be lifted and new criteria be drawn up to assess individual risk factors and not blanket target groups. Speakers at the conference called such restrictions “daft” and “unscientific.” The motion also calls for improved blood screenings.
Meanwhile, the lifetime ban on gay blood donors is set to end November 7.
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