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Since When Did Blood Donation Become A Battleground for Equality?

Why this fight for equal rights is being fought for the wrong reasons.

If you had the opportunity to potentially save a life, would you do it? Hopefully, the answer is yes. Now imagine that you have that same opportunity, but I tell you that you’re not allowed. The reason you’re not allowed is that doing so could potentially cause harm to someone else. What do you do now? Do you continue your course of action, ignoring the risk of harm to others? Or do you accept the fact that rules are there for a reason, to keep people safe?

This is the question currently being asked in the UK, where research has found eligibility rules for blood donation are being deliberately broken by some gay men, who claim that the criteria are discriminatory and “rooted in deep homophobia.”

Blood Donations in the UK

Ten years ago, sexually active gay men in the UK were completely unable to donate blood. A lifetime ban was enforced in response to the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980s, and it wasn’t until 2011 that this ban was lifted and replaced with a one year deferral period. The reason for the deferral period is due to the time window following infection, where blood-borne diseases such as HIV can escape detection by the tests used for screening donated blood.

Today, that deferral period is three months. A review was conducted by the UK Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues, and Organs in 2016, following a long campaign by Freedom To Donate. The review found that advances made in testing for blood-borne diseases meant that a twelve month deferral period was no longer warranted, leading to the recommendation the period be reduced to three months, which came into effect in late 2017/early 2018.

The Line Between Discrimination and Patient Safeguarding

Was the lifetime ban on gay men giving blood discriminatory? Absolutely. Is a three-month deferral period unreasonable, when it is in the interest of patient safety? Absolutely not. The men who admitted to donating blood whilst sexually active argue the current rules unfairly discriminate against them. But where is the line between discrimination and patient safety? Isn’t the health and wellbeing of patients a good enough reason to justify this?

The Equality Act 2010 says discrimination can be justified if the person or group who’s discriminating against you can show it’s a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. ‘Proportionate’ means that the reason for the discrimination must be appropriate and necessary. ‘Legitimate aim’ refers to the reason for the discrimination, for example, ‘the health, safety, and welfare of individuals.’ I would argue until I’m blue in the face, that the three month deferral period is a proportional and appropriate means of ensuring patient safety. After all, isn’t blood donation supposed to be about the patients, not the donors?

I can imagine the frustration that comes from being tarred by the same brush as others. That some gay men may engage in unsafe sex isn’t representative of the entire gay community. But, in 2017 there were 4,363 new diagnoses of HIV in the UK. 53% of those diagnosed were gay or bisexual men. In the same year, there were roughly 102,000 people living with HIV in the UK. Around 8,000 of these were living undiagnosed, meaning they did not know they carried the infection.

Given that HIV diagnoses are still disproportionately high within the LGBT community, and there is a high number of people who are undiagnosed, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Doesn’t patient safety outweigh the perceived discrimination caused by a three-month deferral period?

Equality For Equality’s Sake

I’m all for equal rights. No doubt somebody reading this could misconstrue my argument to say that I’m coming across as homophobic or discriminatory. I’m not. Some of the closest people in my life are gay. But this particular fight for equality feels like it is being fought for the sake of it. The deferral period is a legitimate, justifiable measure that was put in place to safeguard patients. Anybody who says otherwise is not acting in the interests of the very people they claim to want to help.

Less than a decade ago, gay men couldn’t donate blood under any circumstances. Now, they are asked to wait three months after sexual contact. Is that really too much to ask? Who knows what the world will be like in five, or ten years time? What kind of scientific breakthroughs could be made, which may allow blood to be screened at the point of donation, where people can be assessed on an individual basis?

To anyone who disagrees with my argument, this is for you. I understand the desire for equality. But it cannot come at the expense of safety. One in four people will need a blood transfusion at some point in our lives. How would you feel if it was you, or your loved ones who caught an infection because somebody ticked the wrong box on a questionnaire, all in the name of equality?

Would you feel the same then?

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Trying to make the world a better place, one word at a time.

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