Blood donation in Northern Ireland is being dragged kicking and screaming in line with the UK – but it’s not enough

Canada drops blood donation ban to three months for gay and bisexual men

Discriminatory blood donation rules for gay and bisexual men in Northern Ireland have been relaxed, finally bringing it into line with the rest of the UK.

The previous rules required men who have sex with men to remain celibate for 12 months before they would be allowed to give blood. From 1 June this deferral period will be reduced to three months, as has been the case in the rest of the UK since November 2017.

Health minister Robin Swann said that the move to relax the restrictions was based solely on “expert advice and evidence”.

“Any one of us may require a blood transfusion in the future and we need to be confident that the blood we receive is safe,” he said.

“As minister for health it is of utmost importance to me that we maintain the safety of blood and I’m confident that the new policy that I am announcing today will do that, while allowing more people to donate.”

The original lifetime ban and subsequent restrictions were based on outdated guidelines from the HIV epidemic.

But with the HIV risk now minimal, LGBT+ advocates have long pointed out that any deferral period for gay and bisexual men is unnecessary and discriminatory.

Gender-neutral risk-based deferrals of blood donations are proven to be safe and feasible, and have already been adopted in Spain, Italy, and Portugal.

Such changes were stubbornly refused by Stormont for years, with the then DUP health minister winning the right to withhold the reasons why he was continuing to impose a lifetime ban in 2013.

The irrationality of this was highlighted by Irish LGBT+ group The Rainbow Project when it gave evidence to the Stormont Health Committee in 2015.

Changes to the blood donation laws in Northern Ireland could free up thousands of potential gay and bisexual donors (GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty)

“It is disappointing that so much public money was wasted defending the indefensible, but we now expect Northern Ireland to keep pace with the other jurisdictions of the UK with regard to blood donations,” said The Rainbow Project’s director John O’Doherty as he welcomed the latest news.

“No longer can LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland be expected to endure lesser treatment than our counterparts in other regions.”
The Alliance Party‘s health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw agreed that the change was long overdue.

“The expert advice had been clear for years, and it should not have taken us so long to reach this stage,” she said.

“It is to be hoped this is a clear step towards removing the sort of outrageous political interference from clear scientific advice which saw the original ban remain in place five years longer than it should have.

“This is good news for the health service because the alignment of blood donation arrangements will make management of donation simpler, and in particular it is good news for the LGBT+ community and society as a whole, as we send a clear message discrimination against them will not be tolerated.”