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Northern Ireland changes gay blood ban to match rest of UK after three years of delay

Northern Ireland changes gay blood ban to match rest of UK after three years of delay

  • Coronavirus has pushed US, Australia and now Northern Ireland to change their rules.
Mobile blood donation vehicle in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has reduced the time gay and bi men must wait after sex before donating blood to three months.

Until now, Northern Ireland has insisted on a one year ‘deferral period’. But the time limit will now match the rest of the UK which moved from a 12 month to a three month wait in 2017.

The coronavirus crisis has put countries under pressure to review the discriminatory bans.

The pandemic has made it harder for many regular blood donors to attend clinics. And that has seen chief medical officers around the world call for fresh donors to come forward.

Meanwhile plasma from people who have survived COVID-19 may be an effective treatment for those struggling to overcome the virus.

But as plasma is a blood product, gay and bi men will not be able to donate it in countries where there is a blood ban or if they have had sex within the relevant deferral period.

As a result, both the US and Australia have changed the rules. In both cases, they have moved from a 12 month wait after sex to three months for gay and bi men.

Now Northern Ireland has followed them.

However it has been a long battle. In changing the rules, Northern Ireland is following advice that the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) gave in their Donor Selection Criteria Report published in July 2017.

Meanwhile the rest of the UK changed its rules to a three month wait much faster, in November 2017.

Nine year battle in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann has just announced the changes.

He said: ‘Any one of us may require a blood transfusion in the future and we need to be confident that the blood we receive is safe.

‘As Minister for Health it is of utmost importance to me that we maintain the safety of blood and I’m confident that the new policy that I am announcing today will do that, while allowing more people to donate.’

The director of The Rainbow Project, John O’Doherty, also welcomed the news. But he added: 

‘It is nine years since The Rainbow Project gave evidence to the Stormont Health Committee outlining the irrationality of the lifetime blood ban for gay and bisexual men.

‘This demonstrates the challenge our community has faced in removing anti-LGBT bias from our laws and practices.

‘It is disappointing that so much public money was wasted defending the indefensible.

‘But we now expect Northern Ireland to keep pace with the other jurisdictions of the UK with regard to blood donations. No longer can LGBT people in Northern Ireland be expected to endure lesser treatment than our counterparts in other regions.’

Of course, it’s not the first time that Northern Ireland has dragged behind the rest of the UK on LGBT+ issues.

For example, England and Wales decriminalized gay sex in 1967 but Northern Ireland only followed in 1982. Likewise, the rest of the UK introduced same-sex marriage in 2014 but it only became legal in Northern Ireland this January.

‘Unscientific and discriminatory’

Moreover, a three month wait will still exclude many gay and bi men from donating blood. And it applies even if they are having safer sex.

As a result, campaigners in the US and Australia are calling on the wait to be scrapped entirely. Instead, they say all blood donations should be screened based on individual risk rather than excluding gay and bi men en masse.

In Australia Rodney Croome of just.equal described the three-month celibacy rule as ‘weak and ineffective’.

He said: ‘At best the new celibacy period is window dressing to make a bad policy look better.’

Meanwhile in the US, LGBT+ organization GLAAD has spearheaded the efforts at repealing the ban and the three month wait.

Over 500 leading American medical experts have said the ban is ‘unscientific and discriminatory’.

Blood bans around the world

Many countries introduced lifetime bans on gay and bi men giving blood at the height of the AIDS pandemic. But now HIV transmission rates are falling among gay and bi men. Testing, treatment and HIV prevention drug PrEP have all reduced the risks.

At the moment countries including Spain, South Africa, Italy, Russia and Mexico allow gay and bi men to donate blood without a waiting period.

Meanwhile some other countries only ask for a three month wait after sex. Now the whole of the UK, US and Australia will join Canada in this group.

However some otherwise fairly LGBT+ friendly countries still have a one-year wait period after sex for gay and bi men. They include Belgium, Ireland and Malta.

Finally, Austria, Malaysia and Greece are among the countries which impose a lifetime ban on gay and bi men’s blood.