MSM Blood Ban – An Inside Look

Written By Tomás Heneghan.

Six months ago I invited my boyfriend back to my house after a dinner date and some drinks. In the heat of the moment, the possibility of sex came into play. As the clothes began to come off I had to stop him and tell him I couldn’t go any further. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I wanted to donate blood.

The Minister for Health had agreed to the lift my lifetime ban on donating blood but had set no date for this new policy. I was going to donate blood but didn’t know when. I told my boyfriend why we had to stop. I told him it could be December before we might have sex. He understood.

When I finally got into the blood donor clinic in mid-January, I had been 23 and a half months abstinent from oral or anal sex, just so I could donate blood.

While no one has the right to donate blood, everyone has the right to equal treatment under the law. The one-year blood donation deferral on men who have sex with men (MSM) was a step forward. It was the first step forward. It was a slight improvement on the previous situation of a lifelong deferral. It is not even close to being good enough though.

When I first contacted a handful of politicians about the lifelong ban in early 2014, both the Minister for Health Dr James Reilly and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny himself attempted to justify the policy, saying:

“The permanent deferral of men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood is not based on sexual orientation but on the fact that there are increased levels of HIV infection among men who have sex with men in Ireland. Decisions of the IBTS on such matters are based on available evidence. Data available in Ireland from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, as well as from international sources is kept under review.”

In finally reviewing the policy, in May last year the Irish Blood Transfusion Service produced a report on blood donations from MSM, which was later sent to the current Minister for Health. One line stood out:

“It cannot be shown that the lifelong ban was ever necessary for the prevention of HIV transmission by blood transfusion.” 

While both the blood service and politicians now point to the recent change to a one-year deferral as the most scientific outcome, there is little evidence to support this. What is clear is that the blood services, and Health Minister, merely followed the current policy of the United Kingdom, France and the USA.

International law and scientific evidence both support a policy of individual risk assessment of blood donors on a case-by-case basis.

In my own case I had been placed on a lifelong ban in May 2015 when I disclosed to the service that I had had oral sex with another man at the beginning of that year. I had been tested for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and all results came back clear.

While the Irish Blood Transfusion Service categorised oral sex between men as a ‘high risk’ activity, the Health Service Executive classified it as a ‘low risk’ activity. In itself, this disparity leaves question-marks over the rationale behind the policies of the blood service.

Before my ban I had been a dedicated and regular blood donor since the age of 18. I donated three times a year for three years. Since that time at least 5.6 litres of my healthy, safe and needed blood was refused by the service, not because it was unsafe, but because outdated prejudices held greater sway than the necessity to provide safe and healthy blood to patients.

More than simply being a waste of healthy blood, the disproportionate blanket policy on MSM sends a message to society and to gay and bisexual men in particular. It tells us and wider society that the state and health services view MSM as walking infections. It is a signal that we are viewed as a threat to public health, solely based on our sexual orientation.

In 1985, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Peter Barry sought to defend the criminalisation of sex between men during the European Court of Human Rights case brought against the state by David Norris. In doing so, the minister intended to argue that criminalisation would help counter the spread of A.I.D.S.

This prejudicial and outdated assumption that all gay and bisexual men will inevitably contract HIV is one which is allowed to continue through the disproportionate blanket deferral on blood donations from men who have sex with men. While the scientific and medical evidence proves otherwise, this seems irrelevant to health authorities and politicians.

Italy, Portugal, Poland and Spain now employ no blanket deferral period for MSM blood donors. In the United Kingdom the 12-month deferral policy, which has been in place since 2011, is also currently under review. Ireland should not be lagging behind yet again on science and fighting prejudice.