Should gay men be permitted to give blood?

This article looks at a growing movement of protest against the ban on homosexual men giving blood. The same ban applies in Ireland and the UK – it was debated in the NI Assembly and the subject of a recent call for change by Stonewall.

The issue is significant because it can be considered ‘profiling’. This goes against principles of justice in the UK and Ireland, as Hazel Blears noted when she condemned its use in anti-terror operations. Do the rules represent homophobic hypocrisy?

Giving blood – urgent, except if you’re gay.


With the selection criteria for blood donations to be widened in April, gay people are demanding not to be excluded.

(From Montpellier) The multi-coloured flags of the Lesbian and Gay Pride organisation fly in front of the white vans. On the 13th February, the gay community gathered together to call for equality in the giving of blood.

As the need for donors becomes increasingly urgent, Minister for Health, Roselyne Bachelot, signed a decree on the 14th January widening the criteria for blood donations. Taking effect in April, it will allow donors to give more, for a longer duration and without an age-limit for the first donation. But this step forward continues to exclude blood donations by male homosexuals, considered to be “at risk.” The Minister’s words at the press conference held on the 26th November, 2007 at the Ministry of Health, had raised hopes within the LGBT community. Bachelot mentioned her willingness to suspend the ban, which dates from 1983, on homosexual men being donors. She explained her words in Libération on the 14th January, 2009.

The epidemiological data are incontestable: between 10 and 18% of gay people are infected, whereas the figure is 0.2% in heterosexuals. Epidemic situations are not the same. There is a risk, and this risk is too high. Hence maintaining this contraindication.”

Heterosexuals too are increasingly infected

Following this, the scattered protest movements were organised in several towns. Behind the small rally of thirty people in Montpellier were the Lesbian and Gay Pride organisation, followed by the town’s recently-formed collective Pink Freak’x. Maïa, co-founder of this LGBT movement, explains the significance of this struggle to the community:

This discrimination confuses gay people and risk-taking behaviour. This restriction would be justified by the rate of HIV, that’s to say the increased risk of HIV infection among homosexual males. But studies prove that heterosexual women are also increasingly affected by infection. There are gay people who are faithful, who live in couples, and there are heterosexuals who are all over the place.”

The young activist condemns the discrimination by profile. “Even if you aren’t homosexual, if they think you look it or act it, they throw the bag in the bin.” Their demands? The end of the stigmatisation of a population said to be at risk, so as to longer talk about risk-taking behaviour as indicated by a made-to-measure questionnaire.”

If there is any doubt, it is preferable to throw out the bag.”

In front of the vans, she is keeping an eye on the protesters. Dr Pierrette Cazal, head of the Montpellier branch of the French Institution of Blood, comments on their action:

We know that, for male homosexuals, it feels like exclusion. Unfortunately, there are statistical studies which show that, if we took their blood, there would be an increased of contamination by HIV. The prevalence of HIV among homosexual men is 100% higher than elsewhere…”

Regarding the claimed ‘crime by profile’, the manager denies it, but prefers to justify the eventual act with the concern of the patient’s safety:

If there is any doubt about how the volunteer answers questions, it is preferred that the doctor throws away the bag.”

The questionnaire depends on the good will of the volunteers who, homosexual or heterosexual, can choose to lie. Biological tests on each donation cannot detect a recent infection. There is a ‘window of silence’ of twelve days for HIV, and up to four months for the Hepatitis B virus.


2 Responses to “Should gay men be permitted to give blood?”

  1. Very interesting post. This is a very difficult issue and I would have to contest the figures stated ‘between 10 and 18% of gay people are infected’. First of all, in order to work this out effictively we would need to know how many gay people there actually are. Also what is meant by gay people, does this only include MSM (men who have sex with men)?

    Personal I do not think that calling for an end to the ban at this time is the best approach. We dont know if this ban is proving effective or not so what we desperatly need is for it to be reviewed. Also, I have written to the DHSSPS many times on this issue but to date have recieved no clear response to the following questions:
    1. How many MSM attempt to give blood each year?
    2. How many HIV+ donations are recieved each year?
    3. How many HIV+ donations go un-noticed after testing and make their way to clinics and hospitals?

    These three key questions could help to asess risk. Also, if blood was catagorised properly when donated, and all donations are tested like they are supposed to be not only would HIV+ donations not slip through the net, but we could have found another way to indentify HIV+ people and try and stop the spread. Does the department of health not have an obligation to take their blood sample and test for HIV? If this ‘epidemic’ is seen as serious as the department would make us think, then they should be taking every possible step to try and indentify those who are HIV+.

  2. belfasttobrussels Says:

    You’re quite right, when the Minister called the figures ‘incontestable’, she didn’t allow for the fact that much of the LGBT community does not acknowledge the fact. That wouldn’t make the figures comparable, though, unless one in fifty gay people were openly gay. For this conversation, any GBT male would fall into that bracket I imagine.

    There are other factors – age for one, because the educational campaigns around HIV should have had an impact, and I’m not aware of the figures for this, or any consequent impact on the policy. Another is whether any figure can justify a blanket ban – as you say, it seems an excuse not to test all blood samples. So rather than waste time taking blood and throwing it away, perhaps this should be enforced.

    There is both the pragmatic point and the principle of group profiling. I wonder whether this is not discrimination in terms of being denied access to a health service open to others. The argument based on group figures shouldn’t be admissible in such a case, so I’m reluctant to worry about the figures in my own thoughts. Your approach should be more effective on many counts, in any case, so best of luck with it and with the DHSSPS. Perhaps the Tories will help?!

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