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Canada softens the ‘discriminatory’ blood ban for gay men, but won’t remove it entirely

A controversial policy that bans men who have sex with men from donating blood isn't going away, despite an explicit promise by Canada's Liberal government.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
(Archivo AP/Toby Talbot)

Men who have sex with men will still be banned from donating blood in Canada under new rules released on Monday.

The change, announced by Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec, its sister organization, will mean that gay and bisexual men will be permitted to donate blood only if they abstain from sex for one year, instead of the previous requirement of five years.

Canada now joins the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, and France in the club of countries who maintain the one-year bans.


The ban extends beyond just men who have sex with men — it also applies to women they've had sexual relations with. The ban likely also applies to transgender women.

But just as Canada joins the rest of the pack, many of those countries have already moved to remove those policies. The UK has launched a study to look into dropping the twelve-month waiting period. In the United States, Congressman Jared Polis has led the charge to end the ban outright, and his cause has been buoyed by outrage over reports that gay and bisexual men had been turned away from donating blood following the Orlando shooting, even as officials pleaded for donations.

Dozens of members of House of Representatives and the Senate have signed letters calling for the ban to be lifted.

We must overturn the morally bankrupt/dangerous ban on gay people giving blood. Absurd someone can't even donate blood to their own husband?

— (((Jared Polis))) (@jaredpolis)June 12, 2016

The ban has been slammed as being discriminatory and homophobic — including by Canada's governing Liberal Party.

"We will bring an end to the discriminatory ban that prevents men who have had sex with men from donating blood," reads a policy document from the Liberals. The document goes on to state: "This policy ignores scientific evidence and must end."

The Liberals' policy document commits to working with the Canadian Blood Services, which is regulated by the federal government, and Héma-Québec, which is run by the province of Quebec, to end the ban.


As the Liberal position pointed out, the blanket policy covers every gay man, including those in monogamous relationships who practise safe sex.

An image from the 2015 Liberal Party platform.

Despite this, and the pledge made during the election, Philpott said she would not be pushing to end the ban yet.

"I recognize that this four-year reduction in the deferral period is not a radical change, and will not change the circumstances for many MSM [men who have sex with men] donors who are currently prevented from donating blood," Philpott said in a statement. "That being said, I would rather see Canada take a step in the right direction than stand still."

She went on to say that "I am confident that any remaining barriers to MSM blood donation will be removed — it is only a question of when."

Philpott went on to say that the government would contribute $3 million to study blood donations, and would welcome more study by a Parliamentary committee — but would not explicitly say that an end to the ban is on the horizon.

Health Canada themselves acknowledged in a statement on Monday, "there has not been a single HIV infection from blood transfusion in Canada 25 years."

That's thanks in large part to new screening procedures that can detect HIV with a high degree of accuracy. As Canadian Blood Services note on their website, the test can accurately detect the presence of HIV so long as it was contracted more than nine days prior.

"If the window period is only 9 days, why is the MSM deferral period so long (five years)?" Reads an FAQ posted to the agency's website.


The answer mentions that, in the 1980s — in a time before there was an effective test for the virus — HIV-positive blood was distributed through the service, and thousands of Canadians were infected. It goes on to conclude that a one year ban is preferable to the five year ban.

"These incremental changes are important steps towards being as minimally restrictive as possible while also maintaining the safety of the blood supply," the answer concludes.

— CdnBloodServices (@itsinyoutogive)June 20, 2016

And while the one-year deferral is popular in many Western countries, those states without bans at all have not seen any uptick in HIV transmission.

Italy dropped its ban in 2001, moving instead to a person-by-person risk assessment, and has seen no higher incidence of HIV transmissions as a result. Portugal followed suit in 2010, as did Mexico in 2012. World-wide, there is a spate of countries that have either allowed gay and bisexual men to donate, or never instituted the ban in the first place.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling