Health Canada lifts ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men

Canada’s ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men is finally being lifted, after Health Canada announced Thursday it was ending a policy that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as “discriminatory and wrong.”

But questions remain about who will still be excluded under the new policy, which is set to take effect by Sept. 30, and how Canadian Blood Services and the federal government will repair the damage caused by the ban to their relationship with the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Health Canada said it had authorized a submission from Canadian Blood Services — which manages the blood supply outside of Quebec — to remove the current ban on donations from men who have had sex with men in the last three months. (Quebec plans to end its own similar ban by next spring.)

The new policy will screen all donors, regardless of gender or sexuality, for “high-risk sexual behaviours.” Canadian Blood Services said this will mean asking all donors who have had a new partner or multiple partners in the last three months if they’ve engaged in anal sex.

“It’s been a long time coming. The current approach was discriminatory and wrong,” Trudeau told reporters Thursday. “It is frustrating that it took this long.”

After promising since the 2015 election campaign that they would scrap a ban widely viewed as homophobic, the Liberals faced repeated criticism for not getting it done sooner.

On Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement and takes questions from reporters. He is joined by federal ministers Jean-Yves Duclos (health), Randy Boissonnault (tourism), Seamus O’Regan (labour), and Rob Oliphant (Economic Development Agency of Canada).

Trudeau, flanked by Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and openly gay and lesbian Liberal MPs, said that research to end the ban was first required, and the government ensured there was funding for it.

New Democrat MP Randall Garrison, his party’s critic on LGBTQ2S+ issues, called the policy shift a “milestone,” but said it could have been done a decade ago, and that successive governments have attributed the delay to the need for research.

“I’ve gone through five ministers of heath giving that excuse, when other countries have already clearly moved ahead,” he told the Star, “and there’s no difference between the blood science in Canada and elsewhere.”

Conservative MP Eric Duncan lamented the delay in finally implementing the new policy, arguing there’s been a general consensus for years that it should be lifted.

“It just continues to be frustrating,” he said. “Yes, it’s progress, it’s welcome news, but we’ve known this for years and now it’s going to take another five months to come into effect.”

The ban has been in place since the early 1990s, when it was seen as a way of protecting the blood supply from contamination with HIV. It began as a lifetime ban, with the period being reduced over the years. Health Canada has said previous reductions of the ban did not lead to increases in HIV-positive blood donations.

While the new screening policy is a “significant step forward,” it will still likely result in “differential treatment” between gay or bisexual men and straight people, said Gregory Ko, lawyer for Christopher Karas, who brought a human rights complaint against the ban.

(That complaint remains active despite Thursday’s announcement.)

Ko pointed out anal sex is a sexual act more commonly associated with men who have sex with men, and that those engaging in the act who are not monogamous will continue to be excluded from donating blood.

“The sexual activity targeted by the residual questions being asked will disproportionately impact gay, bisexual and queer men,” Ko said in an interview. “That is a continuing distinction that is drawn along the lines of sexual orientation, and that remains of concern.”

He said he and his colleagues are still reviewing the policy, but would like to see a more individualized assessment of a donor’s risk to the blood supply.

Canadian Blood Services CEO Dr. Graham Sher told reporters that according to research, anal sex poses a “significantly higher risk” of transmission of HIV than vaginal or oral sex.

Sher was asked why the new questionnaire wouldn’t include questions that could allow for a more individualized assessment of a donor’s risk, such as whether they use condoms or take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) — medicine to prevent the transmission of HIV.

He said donors “don’t necessarily recall accurately” if they used a condom during every sexual interaction, and there can be “slippage or breakage.” And while PrEP can prevent the transmission of HIV sexually, “we don’t know that it can’t still be transmitted through a transfusion,” and so research is continuing.

Sher said his organization recognizes the policy shift alone will not repair the damage caused to its relationship with the LGBTQ2S+ community. “We recognize that trust-building is an ongoing process, the change in the policy being just one step toward that,” he said.

Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien — who made headlines during last summer’s election campaign when she refused in a debate to defend the Liberals’ slow pace at lifting the ban — told the Star she was feeling emotional at Thursday’s news after a young male friend texted her.

“(He) sent me a text and said, ‘Marci, when I was told that I couldn’t donate, I felt so dirty, and this makes me feel that I can give the gift of life like anybody else,’” said Ien, whose department is currently working on the country’s first LGBTQ2S+ action plan.

“We have done the right thing,” she said. “Has it taken far too long, and a lot longer than all of us would have liked? Absolutely, but we did it.”

With files from Tonda MacCharles


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