Time to end ban on gay men giving blood?

Debate rises about gay men's right to give blood. | Photo: Anneka Jones
Debate rises about gay men's right to give blood. | Photo: Anneka Jones

The National AIDS Trust has used World AIDS day as an opportunity to increase pressure on the National Blood Transfusion service (NBTS) to change its policy on stopping gay men from donating blood.

This issue recently came to prominence at the University of Lincoln in November, when the university’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LBGT) society held a demonstration outside the the Engine Shed while a blood donation session took place inside.

At the time the LGBT organised a petition which received hundreds of signatures in support and The Linc also held a poll which found that 98% of students asked supported the LGBT’s cause. Despite this, and many similar protests that have taken place around the country, the ban which has been in place since the 1980s still remains.

Although there is widespread support for changing the policy, not everyone would advocate a change to the screening policy. John McCavish, a senior lecturer in social work at the university, says that while he was full of admiration for LGBT society for highlighting an important issue and looking to defend gay men against discrimination, he argued that this issue was not about discrimination but rather managing risk.

McCavish says that the policy of the National Blood Transfusion Service was simply looking to supply safe blood and not stigmatise gay men.

“The ban is about behaviours, not sexuality (or lesbians would not be encouraged to donate blood). Other high risk groups (determined by their behaviours) are also actively discouraged from donating blood,” says McCavish.

The National AIDS Trust estimates from a study carried out in 2006 that around 0.12% of the general population is infected with HIV, around one in 830 people. In contrast the same study found that 23% of gay men living in London and 10% (1 in 10) of gay men living outside of London were infected with HIV. In respect to the figures that show gay men are considerably more likely to carry the HIV virus, McCavish argues that statistically, men having sex with men is a high risk behaviour and bans apply to other groups that take part in high risk behaviours.

He says that the NBTS is not making a moral judgement and explains that although gay men may not currently be in a sexual relationship or may be monogamous, many gay men will not know their HIV status either. “As an organisation, the National Blood Transfusion Service is not a homophobic organisation that has blindly created this policy with a view to stigmatising gay men. Its main objective is to provide, as far as it’s possible, a safe supply of blood (and related products) to those who need them at critical times. In determining levels of risk it uses a range of statistical models to support its standpoint.”

In response to Professor McCavish’s claims, the university’s LGBT chairperson Alanna Draper-Webster hit back by arguing that a key fact is being misinterpreted.

“By all means, the blood service should try and filter out donations from people who engage in high risk behaviours, but the point that’s being missed is that being gay is not a high risk behaviour, a man having sex with another man is not a high risk behaviour, whereas promiscuity is, and the two concepts are not synonymous, but are being treated as such,” says Draper-Webster.

Draper-Webster says she believes that there is a bias towards heterosexuality in modern British society which has coloured people’s interpretation of the facts. She points to the fact that white men and people in the age group of 30-34 years old are the most likely groups to be diagnosed with AIDS, and says “Does this mean that white men and anyone aged 30-34 should be designated high risk and not allowed to donate? This a patently absurd suggestion, but the hetero-centric nature of modern society means that many do not see the absurdities of the former policy [banning gay men] as they do the latter.”

Further to Draper-Websters argument, the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has called on the NBTS to amend its policies to be more inclusive. He says: “The National Blood Service should replace the lifetime ban with more narrow restrictions focused on risky gay and bisexual donors. This change of policy should go hand-in-hand with a “Safe Blood” education campaign targeted at the LGBT community, to ensure that no one donates blood if they are at risk of HIV and other blood-borne infections.”

As a response to the recent debate on this issue the Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues, and Organs (SaBTO) is currently reviewing its policy of who is allowed to give blood.

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