Calls to drop Scotland’s gay blood donation ban gather political momentum

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Calls by a Scottish National Party MSP to ease restrictions preventing gay and bisexual men donating blood in Scotland have gained the support of Scotland’s Labour Party along with Scotland’s Liberal Democrats.

SNP MSP Linda Fabiani has written to SNP Health Secretary Alex Neil asking him to outline the Scottish Government’s “intentions on further equalising the donation criteria for men who have sex with men (MSM).

Ms Fabiani, who represents East Kilbride, said: “For many, giving blood is seen as a duty and a responsibility. Gay and bisexual men who practice safer sex shouldn’t be discriminated against.”

The letter comes nearly two years to the day since the MSP championed a motion at her party conference, supported by the party, to condemn the government’s new deferral rules which described the changes as “wholly inadequate”.

So far the SNP majority government has not moved to review the rules or bring forward any proposals for debate.

In 2011, England, Wales and Scotland introduced a one-year deferral for gay and bisexual men who wish to donate blood under the advice from SaBTO, the UK Government’s Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs Advisory Committee.

They can donate – providing they refrain from having sex with men for 12 months.

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

While there is a four-week window between transmission and detection of HIV, Hepatitis B can take up to a year to be cleared by the body.

The same rules for donors on sexual behaviour and activity do not apply to heterosexual couples, which has led to calls that the
deferral policy is still unfair.

Ms Fabiani added: “There doesn’t seem to be any strong scientific approach to the de­facto blanket ban, and we should look at risk rather than sexuality when deciding who can and who cannot give blood. Scotland has a great record on equality and this is a further step that our government can take to give our gay and bisexual men the same rights as anyone else to donate blood.”

There could be signs of consensus in Holyrood with Labour and the Lib Dems both supporting a review of the policy.

Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party commented: “Scottish Labour is committed to doing everything possible to reduce STIs, including HIV, among everyone no matter what their sexual orientation. This should be the first step to achieving a blood donation system that is safe and as inclusive as possible. My party would support a continuous assessment of the current policy.”

Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, added: “The safety and wellbeing of those who require blood transfusions
should always be paramount, but within the current system the restrictions placed on gay and bisexual men are inconsistent with the restrictions placed on other groups.”

However, Scottish Conservatives have expressed caution, saying: “What the Scottish Conservatives think about this advice is entirely besides the point. We are happy to urge regular reviews but to overrule scientific advice in the name of populist politics would be irresponsible.”

Meanwhile, a health spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The safety of the donated blood is our paramount consideration. Deferral, as advised by SaBTO, is determined on the basis of whether a person’s sexual behaviour puts them at high risk of acquiring severe infectious diseases that can be transmitted by blood.

“The donor selection criteria focuses on sexual behaviour, not sexuality. The Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service regularly review the donor selection criteria.”

Last Friday, the High Court in Belfast ruled against Northern Ireland’s lifetime ban on gay men donating blood, paving the way for the province to match England, Wales and Scotland in implementing a one-year deferral.