Opinion: Gay blood donation ban to be lifted – well, barely

The news broke over the weekend that an announcement is imminent on the policy surrounding the lifetime ban on donating blood for any man who has ever had sex with another man.

The writing on the wall appears to be that gay men who have not had sex for a decade might in future be allowed to give blood.

This decision was the likely outcome of the scientific review into blood donation, when I researched the issue for an op-ed slot on Pod Delusion live. It was one of the things I mocked in front of a live pub audience.

The Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood, Tissue and Organs (SaBTO) have been looking at the issue for over two years. If you check their website on the NHS pages you can read the minutes of the committee and a number of academic papers they are considering as part of making up their minds.

One of the “compromises” they appear to be coming to is suggesting that gay men who haven’t had gay sex for five years become eligible to donate blood.

This would have the bizarre outcome of putting the NHS in the same situation as the Anglican Church. “We’re absolutely fine with teh gays – just so long as we can be sure that you’re not actually f***ing.”

Will Howells joked at the time that it meant you could redefine “a dry spell” as “taking one for the team” – which made me chuckle then.

But joking aside, this is a disappointing decision.

Whilst it is welcome that a very small number of people might now be able to donate blood who previously were not able, I think this falls short of the sort of action we have seen in other countries, and is a disappointing outcome.

It still means that the vast majority of gay men, the vast majority of whom do not have HIV, will still be unable to donate blood. 19/20 gay men polled would be happy to do so if they were able, and would be happy to contribute to the Blood Service’s perpetual problem of finding enough eligible donors to keep the nation’s crash victims, surgery candidates and post-partum mothers alive.

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15 Comments

  • It is a pretty crap decision.

  • Alex, this is a scientific review, isn’t it? Are you questioning the quality of the science, or do you see this purely as a gay rights issue? Put at its bluntest, do you want to see the ban lifted even if the result is an increased risk of HIV infection for the recipients of donated blood?

  • There’s a very good piece on this issue here .. http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com/?p=2159

  • The article even gives some sound advice (IMO) as to how things could move forward from this point.

  • @Chris: Currently a man who a year ago had sex with an intravenous drug-using prostitute from Swaziland (where 50% of people in their 20s are HIV+) is allowed to give blood; under these new rules, as described above, two men in a loyal relationship who had only ever had sex with each other and who did not fall into any other “at risk” category would not be able to give blood unless they both abstained from sex for a decade. If that is evidence-based science then I’m the Wizard of Oz.

  • Stuart

    You seem to have misunderstood. We’re talking about a review that is currently being conducted, not about the existing rules.

    My question is whether the review should be conducted on purely scientific grounds, or whether people are arguing that gay rights should also enter the equation. In other words, are people suggesting that it’s fair to increase the risk to patients in order to ensure that homosexuals have the unrestricted “right” to donate blood?

  • @Chris – Well, if you ask me then, absolutely, safety and risk must be the primary consideration, coupled of course with the need for supply… no point having totally 100% safe, risk-free blood if we only generate one pint a year! My point – and I think it still stands – is that this must be applied fairly and uniformly. If you look at the contrasting rules that I highlighted, I cannot accept that the same levels of risk are being applied… specifically, why does having sex with someone from a high-risk part of the world (and a quarter of all adults in Swaziland, for example, are HIV+, rising to half amongst people in their 20s) lead to a self-imposed one-year ban on donating, whilst a man having sex with another man (there are fewer than 54,000 men with HIV/AIDS in the UK) leads even under the new rules (as reported above) to a 10-year ban?

  • @SChris – Such science would have to be applied across the board to all categories exibiting a ‘higher than usual’ proportion of infection. This is plainly absurd as we would sleep walk into an un-hypothecated world of justified racial/social/age sterotyping which on an individual and case by case basis would be wrong.

    Suppose I had slept with a man once, observing all the rulse of safe sex and now cannot donate blood. Now compare me to an individual who sleeps around all the time perhaps safely, but ‘only with women’? This is surely an instance of the inhumanity of the state at its worst.

    The choice of gender of the sexual partner isn’t the scientifically pertinent point given the other proportions highlighted in the papers; rather, there are better indicators which could be applied but are even more politically unpalatable.

  • Ruth Bright 11th Apr '11 - 6:13pm

    At the moment HIV negative women who have had a bisexual male partner in the past are not allowed to give blood.
    There is absolutely no justification for this.

  • @Ruth – correct, that is similarly outrageous for all the same reasons.

  • I think this is one area where rights are trumped by good science, but….

    I’m not sure the science is good. It is true there are higher rates of certain conditions amongst homosexual / bisexual men. It is also true that this is not the only factor, lifestye is probably a better identifying factor and would bring a large number of heterosexuals into the banned group. We are of course suffering the hangover from the “gay” stigma of the early days of HIV, we are also paying the ongoing impact of those who have contracted conditions from so called “tainted” blood.

    What is really needed is easier, low cost testing of blood (and other donated tissue products) to allow all to donate and the donations to be effectively screened.

  • Alex

    The trouble is that you seem to be taking offence at the exclusion of gays who are “actually f***ing.” But their blood could be infectious and not show up on the test.

  • The preliminary report is here btw:

    http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/@dh/@ab/documents/digitalasset/dh_111629.pdf

    What I don’t understand is why there appears to be no study comparing sub groups of “MSM” with different sexual and health behaviours – condom use, number of partners in last year, negative HIV test in last X months … Surely adding a question like that is no more difficult to answer than “have you ever had sex with someone who has ever had sex with someone who has ever recieved money for sex”?

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Apr '11 - 10:58am

    I don’t know enough about the science to comment on the rights and wrongs of the ban. (It’s frank admissions like that which have always made me totally unsuited to any kind of politicval activism!!)

    But what I do know is that this is a scientific issue, not an equality issue, and drawing parallels with the situation in the Church of England is ludicrous.

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