About 24 years ago just after I had turned 18 my father took me somewhere that in our family was somewhat of a right of passage, to the Good Templar Hall on Hamilton Road for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Of course before that I had to give a little something in return a unit of my O- blood. Like my father and grandfather I then had a little book showing that I was a blood donor. The last little piece of paper that was placed in that book shows that I gave blood in the week after the Omagh bomb, though I shouldn't have given it as I'd forgot to check the small print.
There was a question that I said no to, probably because my dad was with me and he did not yet know that the answer was yes. The question:
Have you ever if you are man had sex anally or orally, either with or without a condom?Today is one of those days that I remember that father who gave enough blood through the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service to earn his gold badge 100 units. Something he was in the Belfast Telegraph for as he did so at Hunterhouse College along with some of his pupils giving their first donation.
But it is also the day that Edwin Poots finally announced that he was going to maintain the lifetime ban on men who have had sex with men giving blood, rather than as the rest of the UK allowing a 12 month deferral period.
But he then went further to say that anybody who engages in risky behaviour should be treated the same. His listed two examples people who have sex with prostitutes who who have sex in sub-Saharan Africa.
Now it may surprise Mr Poots that there are already restrictions in the later two categories, on the Blood Transfusion Service website it says:
You should not give blood for 12 months after sex with:
A man who has had sex with another man (if you're a female).
Anyone who has ever injected themselves with drugs.
Anyone with haemophilia or a related blood clotting disorder who has received clotting factor concentrates.
Anyone of any race who has been sexually active in parts of the world where AIDS/HIV is very common. This includes countries in Africa.
So there you have it these other 'risky' sexual practices are subject to as referral period of 12 months both here and in the rest of the UK already. The lifetime MSM blood ban ranks up there with people who have worked as a prostitute, injected themselves with drugs, or have ever had syphilis, HTLV (Human T - lymphotropic virus), HIV or hepatitis C.
So is Mr Poots saying that all gay men are as risky as those three?
For a start many gay men regularly get blood tests from the diseases mentioned in the final exclusion. Even in the medical examination performed before a donation a gay man could be asked when he was last tested. Seeing as one of the questions at STI testing is how many sexual partners you have had since the last test this is on the patient records of that individual. A failure for a gay man to have had a blood screen in the last 12 months could be a reason to deny them to donate blood, even though all blood donated is tested.
Is he seriously comparing the many gay men in monogamous relationships with prostitutes? Or intravenous drug users?
It does look as Sue Ramsey, the Sinn Féin chair of the health committee, suggests that he is pandering to his own prejudices and not making the decision based on facts.
Mr Poots did say that he had received two bits of correspondence in the last week. One came from his Irish counterpart informing him that Ireland did not have any plans to lift their lifetime ban. The other advising the the majority of the EU maintained a life time ban. Although Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden are like the rest of the UK operating a maximum of the 12 month referral period and not a lifetime ban, as do Australia and New Zealand (5 years).
Indeed Poland has a rather sensible policy based on sexual practice rather than orientation. There people of any sexual orientation involved in any kind of sexual activity are welcome to donate blood, if they are confident that their sexual behaviour is safe and does not expose them to sexually transmitted diseases by i.e. unprotected sex with non-trusted partners, whether homo-, bi- or heterosexual.
There is an cruel irony that the Democratic Unionist health minister is siding with Ireland on this issue while the Sinn Féin chair of his assembly committee wants the UK policy expanded to Northern Ireland. Just who is the unionist?
Update I've done a little further reading since yesterday. In the USA there are calls in congress to look at alternatives to their MSM gay blood ban (Poots cited the example of the USA as one he was following in keeping the ban). France one of the EU's largest countries by population is about to lift its blanket ban on MSM blood donation, looking not at "nature of sexual relations or sexual inclination" but on the "multiplicity of partners" as the way to deal with risky behaviour.