Scrapping Canada’s Homophobic Blood Donation Ban

Opinion by Jordan deWever.

A vial of blood and a stethoscope atop pastel-coloured doctor's forms.

Like an ever-present thought, the process of donating blood has had an unquestionable presence in media advertisements and stories. This is evident when looking at the news, as numerous recent articles pertain to the generous donors contributing to our national blood inventory. For example, one Ottawa man featured in a recent CTV article has made 150 donations after his first, which happened at Carleton University [1]. A common theme in this blood drive is an associated urgency articulated through Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS) and their partners’ messaging. CBS is considered the sole independent organizer of the donation of blood and related tissues in all Canadian provinces and territories except for Quebec. A large title in a subsection of their website states; “Tomorrow, next week and next month, the need for blood is constant.” [2]. To emphasize further the need for blood donations, time depicted in blood droplets showcases the days left before a certain blood type runs out [3]. Yet, if there is such a high need for blood, those eyeing the eligibility criteria listed on their website may question as to why “men who have sex with men”, aka MSM, are unable to donate if they have recently been sexually active. Therefore, it is encouraging to see that this vestigial policy is in the process of being rescinded. Why bar gay and bisexual men?

Being one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage [4], it may come as a surprise that gay and bisexual men are still barred from donating blood in Canada. Listed under a subcategory on CBS’s donation eligibility titled “Men who have sex with men”, one can find a plethora of information pertaining to this topic [5]. One particularly informative section on their website covers the history and timeline of eligibility for this segment of the population [6]. This section reveals when and why this restrictive measure was implemented: in the mid-1980s to “…protect the blood supply from HIV.” [7]. However, the transmission of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV are not limited to gay and bisexual men [8]. Rather, HIV can spread and infect anyone, regardless of sexuality [9]. No other category of sexually active people faces such restrictive measures, regardless of gender combination or degree of monogamy, causing confusion for Canadians [10]. This begs the question: why bar MSM? As recently as 2010, courts have ruled that the criteria for MSM are not discriminatory, rather that the ban is based on health and safety considerations [11]. Why is it then recent governments, and even CBS itself, have been receptive to concerns over this ban being discriminatory, and what does this mean for gay and bisexual men? Justin Trudeau’s “Sunny Ways”

Mirroring Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Sunny Ways, then-Liberal Leader turned-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to do politics differently [12]. In 2015, Justin Trudeau addressed the concern directly when he stated that a Liberal government would rescind the blood donation ban on men who have sex with men [13]. In 2016, Health Canada approved a CBS proposal to only require MSM to have been abstinent for one year instead of five in order to donate [14]. Since then, a number of initiatives, such as the MSM research grant program [15], have taken place in order to further study the eligibility criteria, which, as stipulated, may lead to a blanket eligibility approach bringing gay and bisexual men equality when it comes to donating blood. In 2019, the abstinence period was again reduced from one year to three months. To reiterate his stance during the 2021 Canadian federal election, after facing criticism for not ending it sooner, Justin Trudeau exclaimed that the ban on men who have sex with men is “unacceptable” [16]. However, the year is now 2022 and has since been almost seven years since the Prime Minister committed to ending the blood ban/abstinence period. Is the end of the blood ban near?

Recent developments have made the end to the abstinence period seem closer than ever. In December of 2021, CBS submitted a proposal to Health Canada recommending the end to asking men if they have had sex with another man [17]. Instead, they state they will shift their screening policies to focus on “…high-risk sexual behaviour among all donors.”[18]. What does this mean for gay and bisexual men? Barring any substantial changes in government or organizational direction, Canada may soon have a blanket approach when dealing with donors of all sexualities. The incremental journey taken by CBS may finally reach its end. For those looking to learn more blood donation criteria or news on the MSM blood ban, the Canadian Blood Services web page contains a plethora of news and information [19]. Additionally, news agencies such as the CBC and CTV News cover this topic with the inclusion of professional input [20], providing for an in-depth analysis of Canada’s blood donation laws.

 

Bibliography

[1] “Ottawa man gives blood for 150th time,” Ottawa, Jan. 20, 2022. https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/ottawa-man-gives-blood-for-150th-time-1.5748430 (accessed Jan. 20, 2022).


[2] “Canadian Blood Services | Canada’s Lifeline.” https://www.blood.ca/en (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[3] Ibid.


[4] “Canada Legalizes Gay Marriage.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/canada-legalizes-gay-marriage/ (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[5] “Men who have sex with men and Canadian Blood Services.” https://www.blood.ca/en/blood/am-i-eligible-donate-blood/men-who-have-sex-men (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] C. S. H. gov D. last updated: June 24 and 2019, “How Is HIV Transmitted?,” HIV.gov, Jun. 24, 2019. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/about-hiv-and-aids/how-is-hiv-transmitted (accessed Jan. 20, 2022).


[9] Ibid.


[10] K. H. · C. News ·, “Liberals face backlash over ban on blood donations by sexually active gay men | CBC News,” CBC, Apr. 10, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/liberal-blood-ban-gay-men-1.4608769 (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[11] “Men who have sex with men and Canadian Blood Services.” https://www.blood.ca/en/blood/am-i-eligible-donate-blood/men-who-have-sex-men (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[12] “The ‘Sunny Way’ | Liberal Party of Canada.” https://liberal.ca/the-sunny-way/ (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[13] K. H. · C. News ·, “Liberals face backlash over ban on blood donations by sexually active gay men | CBC News,” CBC, Apr. 10, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/liberal-blood-ban-gay-men-1.4608769 (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[14] “Men who have sex with men and Canadian Blood Services.” https://www.blood.ca/en/blood/am-i-eligible-donate-blood/men-who-have-sex-men (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[15] “Canadian Blood Services MSM Research Grant Program.” https://www.blood.ca/en/research/our-research-activities/our-research-funding-opportunities/msm-research-grant-program (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[16] “Trudeau expects to overturn blood donation ban for gay, bisexual men soon - National | Globalnews.ca,” Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/8165956/trudeau-liberals-blood-ban-gay-men/ (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[17] “Men who have sex with men and Canadian Blood Services.” https://www.blood.ca/en/blood/am-i-eligible-donate-blood/men-who-have-sex-men (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[18] “Evolving eligibility criteria for gay, bisexual and other men.” https://www.blood.ca/en/blood/am-i-eligible-donate-blood/men-who-have-sex-men/eligibility-criteria-gay-bisexual-and-other (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[19] “Canadian Blood Services | Canada’s Lifeline.” https://www.blood.ca/en (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).


[20] “Canadian Blood Services to soon recommend end to ban on gay men donating blood | CTV News.” https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/canadian-blood-services-to-soon-recommend-end-to-ban-on-gay-men-donating-blood-1.5667710 (accessed Jan. 21, 2022).