Thursday, 8 September 2011

Ban on gay blood donations not lifted

"Ban on gay blood donation lifted", claims the headline. Not quite.

For more than twenty years, the UK Blood transfusion service has imposed a lifetime ban on any man who admits to have ever having sexual relations with another man from donating blood. This is on the assumption that gay men are likely to be infected with the AIDS virus, and that even though blood is thoroughly screened before being used in patients, even though the chance of infected blood making it through the screening process is around one in four million, one can never be too careful.

Many campaigners (Peter Tatchell, for example) have always seen this as being hurtful and discriminatory, as well as medically unnecessary. Its effectiveness was also open to question, since research has suggested that, ban or no ban, gay men form a higher proportion of blood donors than the population average. The Sunday Telegraph reported earlier this year that around seven per cent of sexually active gay men are thought to give blood despite the ban. This compares with around 5% of the eligible population.

But no-one ever talks about that. The polite fiction is maintained that because gay men (or, to be strictly accurate, men who have had more than zero same-sex contacts in the course of a lifetime) obey the rules and don't try to donate blood. It's important to note this, however, since it points to more than the widespread flouting of the ban. It also provides independent confirmation that the ban is not needed. (Where are the cases of contaminated blood being passed onto patients as a result of breaches of the rule?)

So, will today's news be a cause for celebration among gay men, who are now allowed to donate blood? I rather doubt it.

Instead of the lifetime ban, it will in future only apply for twelve months. Thus a gay man, or a bisexual man, or a normally heterosexual man who got drunk and curious once upon a time, will be able to give blood provided he hasn't had sex with any other man for over a year.

And what self-respecting gay man would fit into that category? There may be some selfless enough to give up sex just so they can donate blood, but there probably won't be many.

Under the new rules, even a gay man who always uses a condom, and who has been perfectly faithful to his (also 100% faithful) civil partner, for the past ten years, even a gay man who has only ever had sex in his life with one other equally chaste man, is still banned from giving blood if he has been sexually active in the past year. What matters is the fact of sex itself, not whether or not the sex is in any sense risky.

Meanwhile, heterosexual men can screw around as much as they like and still give blood, just so long as long as they refrain from sleeping with prostitutes or intravenous drug addicts.

The new rule, in short, advances neither the cause of patient safety nor of non-discrimination. If anything, it enforces the discrimination by distinguishing for the first time between proper gay men and heterosexuals who once went through a phase (or an "ex-gay" man who sucessfully completed one of those Evangelical conversion courses). In that sense, this new "liberalising" move is about imposing, rather than removing, a true "gay blood ban". But however you look at it, the ban on gay blood donors remains firmly in place.