Gay campaigners urge Northern Ireland health minister to overturn blood donation ban

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Gay rights campaigners in Northern Ireland are pressuring health minister Edwin Poots to overturn the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.

Last week, UK health ministers announced that the rules would be relaxed in England, Wales and Scotland on November 7th – allowing gay and bisexual men to donate if they refrain from sex for 12 months.

But Northern Ireland is yet to make a decision on whether it will follow suit.

Gay rights group The Rainbow Project has written to Mr Poots to ask him to make his stance clear.

John O’Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project, said: “We welcome the move by the UK government to change the rules on MSM donating blood, however we feel they do not go far enough and can’t understand why once again Northern Ireland has been left out in the cold.

“There is no recognition within these changes for couples who are in long term relationships, only having sex with each other and therefore not at risk of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.”

He pointed to a recent statement by John Dalli, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, who said that while EU laws demand donation restriction on those at higher risk of HIV, sexual behaviour is not identical to sexual orientation.

Mr O’Docherty continued:”The LGB&T community in Northern Ireland should not have to rely on the courts and the EU to implement key changes on equality matters. The minister for health needs to make his intentions around these changes clear and this needs to be done immediately.

“Blood banks continue to struggle to meet demand in Northern Ireland and despite this, archaic legislation still exists banning some of the populations from donating blood.”

Mr Poots is considering whether Northern Ireland’s laws should come into line with the rest of Britain, his spokeswoman told the Belfast Telegraph.

The one-year deferral period for England, Wales and Scotland was chosen in part because of Hepatitis B, which disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men.

But gay rights campaigners said gay men would still be treated unfairly under the new rules, as heterosexuals engaged in higher risk sexual activity are not subject to the same restrictions.

The ban was put in place in the 1980s after the AIDS crisis, as gay and bisexual men have higher rates of HIV. Currently, any man who has ever had protected or unprotected oral or anal sex with another man cannot donate blood.

The government’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) has been examining the issue for the last 18 months.