Gay blood ban comes under fire

Irish blood services continue to refuse donations from gay males, as pressure builds for change. Current Affairs Editor Adam Dinan investigates.

Members of UCC Students’ Union and the LGBT Society were recently out on campus to protest  against the sustained refusal of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) to accept donations from those in the male homosexual community. The IBTS has a number of restrictions on eligibility for giving blood, which it claims are in place to protect both the health of the donor and the safety of the blood supply. These include bans on donations from those who have been in prison in the previous year, or who have recently gotten a piercing or tattoo, as well as all men who have sex with men (MSM).

While the IBTS acknowledges that its policy in relation to MSM causes “considerable offence” and is “clearly discriminatory”, the organisation’s CEO, Andrew Kelly, has defended their current stance. “We discriminate against several groups in the community insofar as we refuse to allow them to donate blood on the basis of perceived increased risk of spreading infections through blood transfusion,” he said in a statement.

However, although in most such cases individuals are allowed to resume giving blood as soon as they can be verified free of transmissible diseases, MSM donors are restricted for life, which campaigners say is unjust and unwarranted. “In the context of temporary bans, it does not make sense that MSM should be banned for life … it contributes negatively to the stigma which is often attached to being gay,” said LGBT Rights Officer Laura Harmon.  As part of the campaign, UCC student Brian Byrne queued up to donate blood, only to be told that he will never be allowed to as a sexually-active gay male.

The policy itself was developed in the early 1980s, before a test for HIV infection in blood donors had been developed. Several European countries have lifted injunctions on MSM donations in recent years, prompting Irish equality groups to call for similar action at home. Gay Doctors Ireland (GDI) have described it as ‘unscientific’, and the Union of Students in Ireland have held regular campaigns against the ban. “It’s very difficult to get information from the IBTS on the policy. They are still recycling information from about five years ago,” said Dr. Conor Malone of GDI.

Protestors spoke also of the need for more detailed vetting of heterosexual high-risk groups, amidst aims to counteract a “culture of misinformation” surrounding sexually-transmitted diseases. “We feel that the questions asked should be closer to those used in Spain, Italy and France, where potential donors are screened on the basis of the risk associated with their actual sexual practices and lifestyle, rather than simple orientation,” said Genevieve Shanahan, who joined in the rally. “Those in higher-risk categories, regardless of orientation, should be deferred for a set period of time, rather than banned for life.”

As far back as 2006, Dr. William Murphy – Medical Director of the IBTS – openly admitted that “any regular blood donor in a stable partnership is safer than one who is not, all other things being equal”, and called for an overhaul of the system. Yet the continued insistence of the board of management to retain the measure in the interim, along with the comments made by Kelly and other senior IBTS figures, suggest that such reform is far from certain in the short term. “If there is to be a change in this policy, the pressure will have to come from outside the IBTS and be maintained, as it has been,” said Ms. Shanahan. “If we aren’t out there setting the record straight on these stereotypes then it will be much more difficult for the IBTS to change due to the widespread misunderstanding of the risks involved.”

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