One of the many issues that have been raised during the current SU elections is that of the MSM blood ban as it stands in Ireland. The ban — which contrary to what some have said is not called the gay men blood donation ban — relates to those men who have ever had anal or oral sex with other men, regardless of whether or not a condom was used. Members of this group, who are mostly (though not strictly) homosexual or bisexual are banned automatically for life, from giving blood to the Irish Blood Transfusion Board, who use terms such as exclusion or deferral instead of ban. This is something which, as a gay man, causes me some discomfort both because of messages of equality and also the stigma imposed upon those with HIV/AIDS. I myself can’t give blood because I had jaundice as a child, which is of course a disease related to the haemoglobin of which red blood cells are a principle component. Another gay man though — minister for health Leo Varadkar — has signalled that he favours relaxing the ban.
The reason that the blood ban makes me feel uneasy is because the message of safe sex needs to be pitched now more than ever to people of all sexualities and genders. There comes a time when directed marketing towards gay and bisexual men means that there is little in the way of warnings and guidelines for heterosexuals to engage in safe sex. Some people may feel that they cannot get HIV/AIDS, simply because the implication of the disease is still that it is one primarily affecting men who have sex with men. Add to this the appalling sexual education in our schools and the heavy focus of HIV/AIDS groups on targeting men who have sex with men and a blind spot occurs.
A study conducted by UCD in 2010 showed that while 40.5% of new cases of HIV here were contracted by men who have sex with men, 37.2% of these cases were contracted through heterosexual behaviour. Added to these statistics is the fact that heterosexual transmission was at one point the highest cause of new cases of HIV here, with 63.7% new cases contracted through heterosexual sex in 2002. In both homosexual and heterosexual cases though, it is a small percentage of each of the communities as a whole who are HIV positive.
Even if a gay man was faithful to his partner for life, and neither had slept with anyone else, they would both be banned from donating blood. On this issue of faithfulness, and the fact that promiscuity is reasoned to by the IBTB as to why men who have sex with men are high risk, William Murphy of the IBTB has admitted that “any regular blood donor in a stable partnership is safer than one who is not, all other things being equal” and said that the characterisation of all homosexuals as promiscuous is “unreasonable”.
The group has also said that allowing MSM to donate blood would not make a substantial difference to the amounts of blood that they have in reserve, and that a relaxing of the ban is being considered purely for reasons of equality. Leo Varadkar has said he favours an option where men who have sex with men would have a twelve month long ban on giving blood from the last time they engaged in the aforementioned sexual behaviour. This could be comparable to the situation in Spain and Italy, where they classify sexual risk not by sexuality but by risk itself, asking prospective blood donors whether they have had “sexual intercourse with a high risk of transmission of STIs” in which case a permanent ban applies or whether they engage in “occasional sexual intercourse with a risk of STIs” in which case a year-long ban comes into effect. This means men who have sex with men can donate blood if not engaged in high risk sexual activity.
These measures do not single out gay people. Rather they take sexuality and sex as a spectrum of low risk to high risk, and ascertain how risky potential donor’s sexual behaviour is. This policy has been shown to even show heterosexuals who may have engaged in high risk behaviour realise that they are at risk. The important step that the IBTB needs to make is the distinction between high risk sexual behaviour with high rate of transmission, and a faithful lifelong gay couple who would be excluded. With the support of the health minister, this could soon be a reality.