We Spoke to Canada’s Health Minister About the Bullshit Blood Ban Rules for Gay Men

Jane Philpot shared our frustration with the new rules.

|
Aug 15 2016, 2:49pm

We sat down with Health Minister Jane Philpott last month. Still via Daily VICE.

Canada's new-and-improved bullshit blood ban comes into force today.

As VICE Canada has previously complained, the Liberal Party had promised to eliminate the prohibition on gay men donating blood and then—surprise!—didn't.

Instead, they changed a virtual ban on non-straight dudes (and the women they have sex with) to, well, a slightly different virtual ban on non-straight dudes. It's now a one-year celibacy period instead of a five-year one. Good news for the recently-celibate and for nobody else.

And, just as a recap: there is really no scientific basis for this; there has not been a single bloodborne transmission of HIV in Canada since new testing technology came into place; gay men are not the only minority with higher-than-average HIV rates; and the excuses for why there is an entire sexual orientation-based ban, as opposed to a lifestyle-based screening process, are utter horseshit.

You may have noticed the conspicuous lack of bulging-eyed anger over this obviously-homophobic ban. Somehow, neither our politicians nor the press are frothing over this.

Not Scott Brison, the openly-gay Treasury Board Minister, nor Rob Oliphant, Seamus O'Reagan, or Randy Boissonnault—all openly-gay members of Trudeau's government who are (presumably, if things are good at home) banned from donating blood.

And just look at the news coverage.

Read more: Liberals Failed Gay Men

Google News hits for "Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau breast feeding"? 10,600.

Hits for "Canadian Blood Services, men-who-have-sex-with-men"? 1,300.

Luckily, Canada's Health Minister seems as frustrated with this nonsense as I do.

Jane Philpott, who approved the smiling, happier ban, invited VICE Canada to her office to chat about the issue and to explain why she didn't follow through on her promise to axe the discriminatory policy.

Her answer is both understandable, and frustrating. And it's really emblematic of how the Trudeau government has tackled thorny issues—study, consult, ask for reports, "consult" with "stakeholders," and punt the issue down the line.

Everyone loves to talk about science. About research. About studies. Because you can't argue with scientists.

But, let's be clear, the current ban is not even slightly different than the previous absolute ban on gay men. This ban is just prettied up, with a new hairdo and a fresh layer of makeup.

If a government-managed agency was banning any other minority on the basis of gender or race: there would be bedlam. Fists, pounding on desks. Fingers, wagging towards justice. Open letters, pointedly written.

Now? Just some foul-mouthed faggot writing for VICE.

So we put the bullshit to Philpott and asked for some justification. You can read a segment of our conversation below.


VICE: Maybe you can start by walking me through the changes on how gay men can donate blood.
Health Minister Jane Philpott: It's a really important issue. As you know, this is something we talked about in our campaign: addressing the reality that the donor deferral policies around men-who-have-sex-with-men were excessive and we made a commitment to address those. So, thankfully, fairly early in our mandate I met with Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec—these are the blood operators that have been given the responsibility to address the donor deferral policies and screening to make sure that our blood system is safe—and I asked them how much they could do on responding to our priorities on this. Thankfully, some short time ago they made a submission to Health Canada saying that they had the evidence to move the deferral for men-who-have-sex-with-men from five years to one year. And Health Canada had a look at the data that they presented with that, and very recently we accepted their recommendation that we take that step. I know that, for many Canadians, this is frustrating because it is not what we had promised, and it's not where we want to end up, but it was a recommendation that was made by an arms-length agency that I had an option to either accept or reject, and I didn't have the option to augment. So we took that step that, yes, this is a step in the right direction and there is much more to be done.

But the regulations do clearly say that the Health Minister has the power to remove barriers for Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec. Why have you not done that?
I want to assure that we have worked really hard to look at what exactly is in my authority to do. And, as I say, these organizations are arms-length organizations that need to prove to Health Canada on the basis of science that any reduction in their donor deferral policies in science-based. The only thing that I could have done with that recommendation that was given to me, was to ask for it to be further discrimination or to broaden it to add terms and conditions that would further increase the safety. But I don't have the authority to ask them to go lower without them proving the science to Health Canada on that. I don't want to get in an argument with you about that. I read your comments on that, I dug into it and had my team here dig into it and, you know, we are not a government that wants to fight with scientists. We believe in science, we have to trust scientists. This is a case where I've said that I'm disappointed that the science doesn't allow us to do more at this point. [...] One thing I'm really interested about doing is hosting this international forum here in the fall where we hope to meet leaders in the world to say: we can surely do better in a world where people should be able to judge on the basis of behaviour—where a man who is in a faithful, monogamous relationship with another man, who clearly should be able to have the HIV test done in the same way that a heterosexual person can have that done and should be able to donate blood. It has to be done. We just have to get enough evidence to move that to the regulators and allow that to take place.

The testing procedures in place are nearly impossible to bypass—the chances of someone contracting an illness from the blood system is virtually zero. The Canadian Blood Services says it hasn't happened in 20 years. Given that, is it a real, based, fear to be saying: if we change these rules, people could contract HIV. And, at a certain point, isn't this stigmatizing to gay men?
So I would not deny that deferral policies are stigmatizing and are unfair. We have to get the science to address that. I think it's really important to look back at history: why are those policies there in the first place. Why do Canadian Blood Services and Hema Quebec exist in the first place? It's because of the tainted blood scandal that you are probably familiar with, in which thousands of Canadians were infected with Hep C and HIV. It was a terrible period of time in Canadian history, and there was a complete analysis of that, a commission that looked into that, and for the people who are still living with that, as well as the rest of Canadians, that we continue to have the safest blood system in the world. You're right that, in terms of HIV in particular, which is probably one of the major infections we're talking about in terms of the donor deferral matter, there has not been a case of blood-borne transmission of HIV in 25 years in Canada. That's a very, very good thing, but we have to keep it that way. So we have to help Canadian Blood Services to get the science to say: If we further reduce this ban, if we take it down eventually to eliminate it entirely, that we can do so safely and nobody is going to get HIV. I believe that's possible. It's definitely possible to have a blood donor policy that is evidence-based, gender neutral, and behavior based. But, unfortunately, those agencies lack the science to prove it still.

Can you commit to a timeline?
I want it as fast as you do—which is tomorrow. But it's not going to happen tomorrow.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

More VICE
VICE Channels