France will lift its ban on gay men donating blood in the spring, French Health Minister Marisol Touraine announced on Wednesday.
"We are putting an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation," Touraine said, referring to a ban on blood donations from gay men that was introduced in 1983 to prevent the spread of AIDS.
President François Hollande promised to scrap the ban during his presidential campaign. In April, the European Court of Justice encouraged the French government to revise its rules on blood donation.
Touraine took to Twitter to express her "pride and joy" at the lifting of the ban. But many of the gay advocacy groups that had been pushing for its repeal expressed disappointment over the restrictions imposed on gay blood donors.
Starting in April 2016, gay and bisexual men will be able to donate blood plasma — the pale yellow fluid portion of the blood, in which the blood cells and platelets are suspended — under the same conditions as heterosexual donors. This means they cannot give plasma if they have engaged in sexual activity with more than one partner in the four months preceding their donation.
But for donating whole blood, it's 12 months of no homosexual sex at all. Unlike heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual female donors — who can give blood providing they have only had one sexual partner in the last four months — gay men will be ineligible if they have been sexually active in the 12 months preceding their donation.
"For us, it's both an insult and a regression," said Frédéric Pecharman, who coordinates the Homodonneur collective, a group that has been advocating for a change in the law since 2009. "Not only is the measure unacceptable on a human level, since a person in good health tends to have sexual relations, but it's also dangerous, because it will encourage those who want to give blood to lie."
The French Health Ministry has described the new measure as a step toward donor equality. Plasma donations will be placed in a "secure quarantine process" and will be used for research. If the samples show that donations from MSM — medical lingo for "men who have sex with men" — are no riskier than other samples, the government will further relax the restrictions.
France will be joining a growing list of countries that have lifted the ban, including the UK, which adopted the one-year abstinence restriction in 2011. On October 29, the Netherlands lifted its own ban on gay blood donors while also adopting the 12-month moratorium on gay sex. As in France, Dutch authorities have pledged to loosen the restrictions pending further research.
As well as arguing for equality among blood donors, critics of the measure say the restrictions are unnecessarily limiting the access to much-needed blood donations. A 2014 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA claimed that allowing gay men to give blood could help save more than a million lives worldwide.
In the US, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) banned homosexual men from donating blood in 1983, after several high-profile scares involving transfusions of HIV-tainted blood. The FDA recently proposed ending the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men, which is also on the condition of 12-month celibacy.
Among those protesting the enduring ban in the US is artist Jordan Eagles, whose sculpture "Blood Mirror" — made from the blood of nine of his gay and bisexual friends — is currently on display at New York City's Trinity Church until World Aids Day, December 1. The sculpture is meant to draw attention to blood that might have otherwise been used to save lives.
A hypocritical restriction
Yohann Roszéwitch, the president of French LGBT rights group SOS Homophobie, said the new measure amounted to "symbolic progress, since we've gone from a lifetime ban to a 12-month delay."
But despite welcoming the lifting of the ban, Roszéwitch noted that "homosexuals will still have a hard time donating their blood, and a [gay] man who's married, faithful, and uses protection won't even be able to."
"The left gave us permission to marry, but in order to give blood, it wants us to abstain. I don't even need to explain to you how stupid the restriction is," said Pecharman. According to him, the condition only perpetuates the myth that all gays are "libertines who sleep around without using condoms."
According to France's General Directorate of Health, a government agency that answers to the Health Ministry, "there is currently not enough data to demonstrate the absence of an increased risk of HIV transmission through transfusions with less than a 12-month delay." In the absence of reliable data on the issue, the French government has decided to conduct its own blood security survey.
"The ministry explained that they have no studies for a delay of less than twelve months," said Roszéwitch, who has played an active role in changing France's outdated policy. "In Italy, the conditions [for heterosexual and homosexual donors] are completely aligned, and, at first sight, there have been no contaminations. But we're being told the two models are not comparable."
Infected blood scandal
Many others — including Thomas Sannié, the president of the French Hemophilia Association — see the restriction as necessary.
"We accept the one-year delay because the Australian example shows that this policy can be applied," Sannié said in July, referring to Australia's adoption of the 12-month moratorium. "What we categorically refused was bringing that down to four months."
In 1991, a French journalist revealed that the National Center for Blood Transfusions had distributed HIV and hepatitis C-tainted blood to patients in 1984 and 1985. As a result of the subsequent investigation, then-Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and two cabinet ministers — Georgina Dufoix and Edmond Hervé — were tried on charges of manslaughter in 1999. While Fabius and Dufoix were eventually acquitted, Hervé was found guilty of "two contaminations." He received no sentence.
"We understand that hemophilia groups were hit hard by this scandal," said Pecharman. "But the debate cannot be based on impassioned arguments. We need a rational debate. And until then, we will continue our action on the ground."