Instituitonalized Discrimination?

Canadian Blood Services Policy Unfair to Gay Men

From the Pride Issue

In 2016, we like to think of society as having neared its goal of equal rights for all. Certainly, it’s a comforting thought to think that we walk down the street and see acceptance and compassion toward racial or ethnical minorities rather than hatred or aggression. Indeed, this is only a recent change in human interaction, and it’s hard to think that calling a person a racial slur was socially acceptable just forty years ago. 

But how much have we really eliminated bigotry in our society? It’s obviously not completely gone, as groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK still exist and preach their hate-filled slogans across their countries and the world. They tarnish our society with division as well as impractical and unsustainable worldviews. Regardless, you would not expect a government-sanctioned organisation to promote inequality in any way shape or form.

That being said, you can find examples of bigotry anywhere if you take the time to look for it. Take the Canadian Blood Services for example: an organisation run in part by the Canadian Red Cross Society and Health Canada and an absolutely crucial component of modern medicine and our health care system. However, they still practice an extremely controversial, and some would say outdated law. This law, which only affects those who identify as LGBT+ - more specifically, gay men - is referred to as the MSM Policy. What does MSM stand for? Men who have sex with men. This policy, which was put in place in 1992, created a lifelong ban on “men who have sex with men” who want to donate blood.

Many of you may be surprised to hear about this policy, and rightly so. More will question why it even exists. I know I certainly thought it was… extreme, to say the least. In this day and age, when different sexualities are so common it was no surprise when they changed the policy in 2013, lifting the lifelong ban. 

Except it didn’t actually change too much. The policy changed to a simple five-year deferral period, during which a gay man must be celibate, for if he is not, he does not qualify to donate blood.  

Now if you ask me, asking a community of individuals to abstain for five years just to donate blood seems a little delusional. It seems to me that Health Canada realised how segregating the law was, but instead of just lifting the ban, they simply reduced it to five years to appease those who would call the policy prejudiced. 

My question is, what’s the difference? No one would abstain from sex for five years just to donate blood, so they are still effectively excluding that demographic of the population from their right to donate. I don’t want to say this is discrimination, but some would label it as such. 

So what exactly are they scared of? What is their reason for this outrageous policy? If you visit their webpage,, and navigate to the section ruefully hidden in their ABC’s of Eligibility, under the 28th branch, titled HIV, about their MSM Policy, you will find a colorful range of explanations for the policy. The main reason of course, is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the retrovirus which causes AIDS. 

I found a few things to be peculiar about their explanation. First of all, the criteria was introduced in 1992, even though AIDS started to really become a problem in developed countries in 1977. That’s a fifteen-year gap between when the problem was discovered and when it was acted upon. 

Interestingly enough, the ability to actually test for the virus emerged in the mid-80’s and was refined in 2001 with the creation of NAT testing, which lowered the effective time the virus can be detected to only nine days after contraction. 

This means there was actually a solution available other than banning homosexuals from donating. The obvious solution is to simply test donated blood for HIV, which is already a policy for blood gathered at these centres and is the reason straight individuals - and really everyone else who is not a gay male - have no problem donating blood. Perhaps before 2001, the reason for the ban could simply be for the lifetime of a unit of blood – roughly 43 days. If it takes longer than that to detect HIV, or even long enough to make gathering the blood not worth it, then fine. That could be an acceptable reason for the ban.

However, with the introduction of NAT testing, there is simply no reason why the ban should not be lowered to at least 14 days, as after that it would be evident whether the blood is contaminated or not. 

In fact, why have the ban at all? Consider that while AIDS and HIV may have first originated in the gay male population, it certainly did not stay there. And while yes, you are statistically more likely to contract HIV if you are a gay male, heterosexual individuals still make up roughly one third of individuals diagnosed with the virus, not counting intravenous drug users. 

It’s not only the homosexual male population that gets infected. So this means that all donated blood must be tested for HIV, not to mention other nasty pathogens, before it can be administered safely to patients. So it really raises the question - if men who have sex with men must abstain, why not men who have sex with women? Or all men and women who have unprotected sex in general? Or why not just make a deferral period of five years for everyone?

Obviously, that’s not realistic, as no one would ever donate blood. Nonetheless, modern testing should allow us to at least lower the deferral period, and drastically. When considering that the UK and Australia have deferral periods of one year only, it’s not an extreme prospect to lower it again. Indeed, the Canadian Blood Services has noted that a proposal to lower the period to one year will be made in 2016. So maybe this is how it will have to be, and as with any battle for equality, it’s the little steps forward that count.