Yesterday, UK decided to lift the lifelong ban that prevented men who have sex with men from donating blood. The ban has been, for some time now, questioned on both medical and equality grounds. However, to donate blood, gay and bisexual men still have to pass the criteria of not having had sex in the last 12 months. Benjamin Butterworth argues that this window period is discriminatory and prohibitive.
Since the 1980s, men who have sex with men (MSM) have been barred from donating blood, based on the understanding that gay and bisexual males are more likely to carry HIV than their heterosexual counterparts. But yesterday, the advisory committee for the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) published the findings of their blood donation review.
Campaigners have argued for years that the ban is unfair and based on social prejudices, rather than reasonable medical evidence. And now SaBTO has found that there should be a change: allowing MSM to donate blood, provided that they haven’t had sex in the past 12 months.
In many respects this seems a step forward. Gay and bisexual men may now donate blood should they meet this criteria – there’s no longer an absolute ban. But the reality of the decision for most men is business as usual. The overwhelming majority of adult males have sexual intercourse more than annually – this is hardly a revelation or moral degradation, it’s the usual behaviour of most British adults, whether they be MSM or otherwise. And so for almost all gay men, the rules remain the same: prejudiced and prohibitive.
This at a time when blood donation levels are worryingly low. It was reported by the BBC that just 6% of adults have registered as a donor in the last decade. Meanwhile people, especially those with rare blood types, lose their battle for life due to lack of an appropriate blood transfusion.
This is why I believe there is a strong moral argument for lifting the ban. It isn’t as though we can afford to pick and choose what general groups of people should donate, whilst blood stocks remain so low.
Assuming that MSM are universally more likely to carry HIV is an outdated judgement. The implication of SaBTO’s decision is that a heterosexual male who chooses to have numerous sexual partners is still entitled to give blood. Meanwhile a homosexual man having regular sexual intercourse in a loving and safe relationship is banned. This is neither fair, nor a justified use of medical statistics.
You might, though, rightly highlight the need for absolute certainty in blood donations, with the risks of making an error so fatal. This is why all donations are screened for antibodies and viruses. It makes abundant sense to screen blood before it is transfused, and it makes more sense to have this as the assessment criteria for donors.
It is our responsibility to offer blood donations, to do our part to save the lives and health of others. That is why sensible regulation for blood donations should be based on sexual behaviour, not sexual orientation. I thus, urge SaBTO to reconsider their judgement.