Following on from an announcement made in June, Northern Ireland have lifted the lifetime ban on men-who-have-sex-with-men giving blood. As with all piecemeal change it’s welcome but doesn’t go far enough. Northern Ireland had a great opportunity to be trailblazers on this issue and finally get rid of this antiquated thinking around gay men giving blood. Instead the fight goes on for real equality.
Starting with the good news, the lifetime prohibition is gone and those organisations who have been fighting this battle, namely Stonewall, The Rainbow Project and LGBT Northern Ireland. I also have to commend Michelle O’Neill for her decision, especially as she made it within just a few days after being sworn in as Health Minister. Electing representatives that actually care about people’s everyday lives can have a real impact, and this is just an example of that.
The are a couple of things that were disheartening though. I am aware that the political situation in Northern Ireland makes any policy initiative difficult to pass, but the Health Minister could have easily recommended to the Executive that the ban should have been lifted all together.The existing checks on donated blood aren’t perfect, but they are incredibly good.
The lifetime ban was introduced in the 1980s when the UK was gripped by the HIV/AIDS crisis and didn’t know anything about the disease. At the time it was widely thought that the disease was almost exclusively within the gay community, hence the ban was introduced. There are legitimate scientific reasons why men-who-have-sex-with-men are more at risk of catching HIV/AIDS, for instance cells in the anus are more susceptible to catching the disease than those in the vagina, but this is not the justification from government. If the Northern Irish government, and the British government for that matter, were being scientific then anyone who was sexually active who had had anal sex should be prohibited, but the ban only applies to gay and bisexual men.
The other thing is that the ban is in effect even if you took preventative measures. If you are a gay man who used a condom, the person you had sex with will not have HIV, but he will still be banned from giving blood. Bans on men-who-have-sex-with-men giving blood are not backed by science. Although there are some risks, those risks also exist for sexually active heterosexuals. Further, there are a number of countries around the world who don’t have such deferral periods including socially conservative Poland and actively oppressive Russia. If the Russians are fine with gay and bisexual men giving blood, then Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK should be.
Obviously this news is positive but I can’t help feeling that it should have gone much further. The conversation in the rest of the UK has now firmly moved on to getting rid of the year-long deferral, and Northern Ireland could have led the way. The lifetime ban was a glaringly obvious example of structural homophobia in Northern Ireland but I’m confident that as more people become aware of issues for the LGBT community further change will come.