Opinion: Ending the ban of gay men giving blood – a liberal cause in waiting

A new group of Facebook is picking up numbers and making itself known. It is called ‘We Want the Gay Blood Ban Debate’ and its speedy growth is impressive for a specifically Lib Dem campaign. It’s a campaign to try and force a debate at conference about the restrictions on who is fit to give blood.

Many people are not aware of the fact gay men can’t give blood. I am from personal experience. The week after the local nurse talked to my sixth form, a group of a dozen or more of us went to give blood together. For a number of years then I gave blood every six months to the day. Then one time I filled in the form and ticked ‘yes’ on the question: ‘Have you ever had protected or unprotected sex with another man?’ I was then told they were not allowed to take my blood. In addition to which, I am now in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a straight woman, and she is no longer allowed to give blood either – despite the fact we have both been tested.

The National Blood Service puts me and my partner into a category they describe as having ‘a particularly high risk of carrying blood-borne viruses’. As they say, this rests on ‘specific sexual behaviour… not on sexuality’. So celibate gay men are fine, the kind of moral tightrope that is normally the territory the Church. Moreover, this category of ‘specific behaviour’ is wide enough to include every non-celibate gay or bisexual man and his partner, but narrow enough to not cover straight men who sleep around unprotected.

Recently we have seen the end of blanket bans of gay men giving blood in France, Russia and South Africa. Here there is talk of changing it to a ban based on behaviour in the last six months. But considering donors are invited to give blood every six months (not more often as it is, to pardon the pun, a draining experience) this would be a rolling ban in place of a blanket ban.

Moreover, we Lib Dems are generally very strong on this issue. Only last month in Nottingham, Cllr Alex Foster put forward a motion celebrating blood donations but regretting ‘that the blood service in the UK discriminates unfairly against different groups in our society including gay men and bisexual men’. The Council’s Labour leadership removed this reference from the motion.

Of course, we are now in a coalition government with Nick Clegg as deputy to Prime Minister David Cameron – both of whom spoke out against the blanket ban in the run up to the election. Cameron said of the ban, in an interview with the Independent earlier this year: ‘Logic would dictate that it’s time to change.’ Meanwhile, reversing the ban was one of Clegg’s four key gay rights reforms proposed in his interview with Attitude magazine.

It is surprising then that a motion raising this debate, by Cllr Chris Ward and Dij Davies, should be rejected for the first Lib Dem conference after the formation of a Cameron-Clegg government. There were many issues on which we disagreed and have since found common ground. It would be absurd if that were to happen at the expense of issues like this one, where there was progressive common ground to start with.

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12 Comments

  • Walter West 21st Jul '10 - 1:27pm

    I’ve never seen the logic for this ban. It is insensitive, illogical and silly.

    I would give my full support to its repeal (but since i’m not on Facebook I can’t add my support that way!).

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Jul '10 - 2:34pm

    “There is an ongoing National Blood Service review into this donation policy right now. This makes it a difficult issue to campaign on realistically – “We want a change in the policy!” “The policy’s being reviewed right now!”. At our Summer Strategy Conference a few weeks ago, LGBT Lib Dems took the view that we’d wait for the outcome of this review.”

    As does the Terrence Higgins Trust.

    Why try to turn it into a party political issue when it’s being reviwed anyway?

  • George Gosling 21st Jul '10 - 9:06pm

    Thanks all for these comments. To respond to a few points in particular:

    Walter – I should have mentioned, the various campaigns around this have quite a web presence beyond facebook too. The ‘project negative’ website is a good place to start: http://www.projectnegative.com/ Also it has been brought up as an idea in Nick Clegg’s search for unnecessary laws to scrap at http://yourfreedom.hmg.gov.uk/repealing-unnecessary-laws/repeal-the-gay-blood-ban

    Debi – I agree that there are other cases that deserve to be looked at. This one should be an easy win given both Clegg and Cameron have agreed on it in the past, which I why I think it’s worth starting here.

    It’s true that there is a review being conducted by SABTO (the governmental advisory body on blood, tissue and organ safety). But this is a government with both a PM and a deputy PM who signed up to ending the ban before the election. It’s worth keeping the pressure on them to stick to their shared position. If the review suggests a different policy they should reject it.

  • “There is an ongoing National Blood Service review into this donation policy right now.”

    Presumably you refer to the SaBTO review, which has already indicated through the evidence given to the members that it will recommend a five-year ban on gay men giving blood – a ban by any other name.

    “Waiting for the review” is politics speak, to anybody that has ever been on an authority (local or national) for “oh dear, controversial subject, let’s delay talking about it”. If you read the 2003 report from the National Blood Service on the evidence given for the MSM group not giving blood, you’d see how it really does not add up to scientific scrutiny. Many of the figures originate from assumptions and “estimates” (yes, the actual figures). It is a clear case (and I’m perfectly happy saying this publicly) of an organisation deciding on the outcome, and then making the consultation and review process fit around that outcome. It happens all too often in politics.

    There is also something to be said for politicians who make unequivocal statements prior to the election that the ban should end, yet after the election then saying we need to “wait for the review”. If anything breeds cynicism in political life, it’s that.

    There will always be reviews going on. SaBTO will recommend a five-year ban, which means gay men will be able to give blood… if they don’t have sex for five years. Fantastic.

    Frankly I find your comment Dave that this motion is an LGBT one quite offensive. We are not fighting for the rights of gay men to give blood, we are fighting for the rights for those who require regular transfusions to receive it. People are dying, particularly with the blood bank currently so low, and no review will change that.

  • I wasn’t personally aware of this ban until reading this article so I dont know as much on the subject as you guys, but it would seem to me to be discriminatory against gay man, bisexual men and the women who have slept with them. Also the policy shows a huge lack of common sense?! If George and his partner have been tested and are clear then its insane to reject them as donors. A simple change to the question

    ‘Have you ever had protected or unprotected sex with another man?’

    Could be

    ‘Have you ever had protected or unprotected sex with another man, since your last clean STD test?’

    I’m sure there are many other ways that so reduce discrimination, that one just occured to me straight away. Embarrasingly I dont donate blood (scared of needles) but have huge respect for those who make the effort to help save lives. To think that the fact someone willing to do something so selfless should be discriminated against on the grounds of sexual preference is disgraceful. Also, the article mentioned Cameron and Cleggs pre-election comments on the subject, does anyone know where Labour stand on this issue? Just curious.

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