Years after first promising to do so, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during Pride month last June that he hoped to “very soon” announce the elimination of the blood donation ban for gay men as well as some other folks in the LGBTQ2S+ community.
It’s nearly a year later and the policy remains unchanged, with the government now arguing in federal court, that while they want to see the blood ban eliminated, it’s not within their powers to unilaterally change the policy.
Opposition parties have begun increasing the political pressure to see the Liberals do more to make good on their two-time election commitment, as LGBTQ2S+ advocates and those who are prohibited from donating continue to voice their frustration, saying the policy is discriminatory and not based in science.
So, how close is the policy to actually changing? And what has to happen before the blood ban comes to an end?
WHERE THE POLICY STANDS
In Canada, both Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec have policies in place prohibiting gay and bisexual men who have sex with men, as well as certain trans folks who have sex with men from donating blood unless they have been abstinent for three months.
The policy started in 1992 as an outright lifetime ban following the tainted blood scandal that played out between the 1980s and 1990s and saw thousands of Canadians infected with HIV after receiving donor blood. During that scandal, the Canadian Red Cross — which was the predecessor to Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec — failed to properly test and screen donors, resulting in thousands of Canadians being exposed to HIV through contaminated blood products.
During the nearly three decades since, the policy has been reduced, first in 2013 seeing the lifetime ban knocked down to a five-year deferral period. That meant, rather than outright refusing donations from men who had sex with men, or the “MSM” community as some have coined it, donations would be accepted only if the donor had not been sexually active for five years.
In 2015, the Liberals campaigned on ending the then-five-year ban altogether. At the time, the party stated that the policy “ignores scientific evidence and must end.” A year later, the five-year deferral period was reduced to one year.
Then in June 2019, the second reduction in the deferral period under the federal Liberals came into effect, seeing the policy allow donations from gay and bisexual men or trans folks who have sex with men, if they’d been abstinent for three months.
For years advocates have called for the blood ban to be replaced by a gender-neutral screening process that would be based on sexual behaviour and not orientation.
As has been the case for some time, every blood donation in Canada is tested for HIV. Under current testing capabilities, HIV can be detected in a “window period” of approximately nine days after infection, and advocates have suggested updated lifestyle-focused screening questions and eligibility would be determined based on that, rather than outright eliminating certain LGBTQ2S+ donors who are sexually active.
It’s an approach that Canadian Blood Services says is ultimately their objective and that the three-month wait is an “incremental step” in the journey, though there’s currently no timeline on when that change will come.
The evolutions to the policy over the last several years were the result of Health Canada approving regulatory submissions from Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec, which included risk modelling showing it would be safe to do so. The federal health agency acts as the regulator for the two blood agencies, though they largely operate independently.
WHO DECIDES THE POLICY?
At the heart of the ongoing contention over the current blood donation policy is what appears to be a struggle over who has the power to change it.
While the federal government’s most recent messaging is that the responsibility largely lies with the blood agencies, critics have pointed to a section of Canada’s Blood Regulations that spells out how the health minister has the ability to change the terms and conditions of blood donations if it is deemed necessary.