Imagine you and your friend are walking into a blood clinic to donate. You’re given forms to fill out. At the sexual history bit; you both put the same thing – you’re kind of at the same stage of life as each other. When it comes to donating, you are walked through to give blood. Your friend isn’t. Instead, he is told he can’t donate and that he needs to stop having sex for a certain amount of time, and then come back after that time is up. That’s because your friend is gay.
In the UK, we need 1.4 million units of blood every year. Every country will have differing amounts they require, of all different specific blood types. As it stands, this isn’t possible if groups of people are discriminated against when it comes to giving blood. Blood donation rules across the world restrict gay and bisexual men donating.
What this looks like is different for each country. If there isn’t an outright ban, there is a ‘deferral period’ – an amount of time during which a gay or bisexual man must abstain from sex before he is allowed to donate (Ireland has a 12-month deferral, for example). This means many countries are missing out on potentially huge quantities of safe and varied blood types.
It’s not as if we don’t need it. We really do.
Ethan Spibey, who launched Freedom to Donate, a campaign to modernise blood donation laws, said:
The fact is, the pool of donors is decreasing and we urgently need to secure the future of the blood supply.
This is a universal fact, whether it be in the UK, Ireland or beyond.
But there are two things to discuss here.
Firstly, the pool of donors is decreasing but due to the fact hospitals over the past 20 years use less blood thanks to modern procedures like key hole surgery and so need less blood. That doesn’t mean NHSBT doesn’t still need blood, and so their campaigns are to replace as many of the donors who stop donating or because they’re in need of rarer blood types.
Secondly, the fact the law is discriminatory.
Take the UK: according to the EU blood directive, deferral periods (in which the donor abstains from sex before donating) ‘should be appropriate to the risk posed by [a person’s] behaviour’. But, it is left to separate countries to decide the exact rules – and those guidelines are based on sexual orientation, rather than the risks posed by the individual. Plainly, there are thousands of willing and able donors who can safely make the life-saving gesture of giving blood who aren’t allowed to, because they happen to be gay or bisexual men.
Rather than broad categories, we need to start using a system of individual risk-assessment.
It’s not just about equality, it’s about donating blood and saving lives.
The restrictions we see today are hangovers from the total bans put in place during the HIV epidemic in the 1980s – but despite the huge advances in blood screening (the residual risk of blood supply being contaminated with HIV is less than one in seven million in the UK and one in 1.47million in the US), gay and bisexual men are still treated differently to straight people.
Various countries have reduced the length of their deferral periods over the years and there has been no evidence to suggest changing this has increased the transmission of blood-borne viruses.
But isn’t the ultimate goal a law that doesn’t discriminate at all? Isn’t it one in which everyone who wants to do the amazing thing of giving blood is treated equally and assessed on their individual behaviour, not their sexual orientation?
Here’s the state of the movement in…
A 23-year-old student changed the law in Ireland. After Tomás Heneghan mounted a high court challenge, the outright ban introduced in the 1980s was replaced by a 12-month deferral policy in January 2017. He has now called on Ireland’s Health Minister to replace the 12-month deferral with a three-month deferral or no deferral at all, for all donors. According to Ethan, the environment is ‘ripe’ for change.
France had a 12-month deferral period but this year the Ministry of Health announced this would be reduced to four months, effective from February 2020. It said the change marked a ‘first step’ in its plans to bring donor conditions for gay and bisexual men in line with those for heterosexuals by 2022.
Because its HIV rates were most prevalent in its heterosexual population, in 2014 the country took the step of scrapping the deferral for gay and bi men, basing the criteria purely on an individual’s sexual behaviour, regardless of sexual orientation.
In 2015, the country moved from a straight ban to a 12-month deferral, in place at the majority of US blood centres by 2017. More positively, it has promised to reconsider its policies ‘as new data becomes available’, including moving to alternate deferral options, such as the use of individual risk assessment.
In highly conservative and/or religious countries the situation is clearer. There are no bans or deferral periods on gay or bisexual men donating blood in Russia, for example, because homosexuality is not openly recognised. So while there are no donation bans, in terms of equality, countries like this have a lot further to go.
In the UK, Ethan remains positive, saying:
There really is a will to change the rules.
We’ve never been closer to having a policy for gay and bisexual men based in fact and reality, not supposition.
It’s a really exciting time.
While we have people like Ethan fighting for positive change, we’re sure it’ll get done sooner rather than later.
Help us end blood donation discrimination and support our campaign to overturn the outdated law that prevents gay & bi men from donating blood.
Ed Watkinson is a content strategist and editor at UNILAD. Having worked for several large media agencies for over 10 years, he joined LADbible Group in 2017 and has been overseeing organic content performance since then.