Ireland is being urged to end its discriminatory blood ban ahead of a policy review this year, after it emerged it is importing supplies from the UK, where many gay and bisexual men are now allowed to donate blood.
On 30 June, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) announced that it was importing blood from the UK for the first time in more than 20 years.
The IBTS imported O negative, A negative and B negative blood from Manchester due to an alarming shortage in supply. Dr Stephen Field, medical and scientific director with the service, admitted that the shortage would have had “a serious impact on patient care” if supplies hadn’t been imported from overseas.
The policy was first introduced in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, initially as a lifetime blood donation ban for any man who had ever had sex with another man. That was later changed to a 12-month celibacy requirement.
Ireland’s strict rules contrast with a recent change in the UK which has allowed many queer men to donate blood for the first time (although some restrictions remain).
As Ireland announced that it was importing blood from the UK, countless LGBT+ people made the same point on social media: why is it safe to import blood from the UK, which now includes queer men’s blood, while a de facto blanket ban remains in place for gay and bisexual men in Ireland?
Frustrations boiled over. Within days, Blood4All, a student-led campaign group had been formed and a petition was launched in a bid to have Ireland’s blood donation ban scrapped.
Students in Ireland are fighting to have the blood donation ban overturned
Eva O’Beirne, one of the founders of the campaign, tells PinkNews that she and her fellow students had been considering launching Blood4All for some time – but the recent importation of blood galvanised them.
“It’s just something that had been very close to our hearts,” O’Beirne says. “We had been talking and we said, ‘We’ll probably postpone this to some time in September, so it’s easier for students to gather and organise themselves.’ And then the news about the blood shortage happened. I texted [the group] and I said, ‘We can’t wait any longer. We need to just start a campaign.'”
Blood4All was founded within two days of that announcement, and a petition was promptly launched on Change.org.
“At this point, it needs be changed because it is a matter of life and death, if you think about it, for the general Irish population,” O’Beirne says.
“The campaign isn’t just about ending the blood donation ban. It’s about enforcing equal procedures for everyone – for sex workers, for MSM [men who have sex with men], for their partners. Technically, I cannot give blood because I am with a person who is bi, which is the weirdest rule. It doesn’t make sense, and when it comes to actually donating blood and making sure that people can continue to live, things have to make sense.”
Fiachra Nolan, a researcher on the campaign, got involved for a similar reason. Before he turned 18, he was excited about the prospect of taking on responsibilities in Irish society, such as voting and donating blood. He became a donor as soon as he was legally allowed to do so.
“As a queer man, it was incredibly weird,” Nolan explains. “That was a decision I had to take into account whenever I had an interaction with another man that I thought I was romantically interested in. I was like, ‘Oh, this could go somewhere. But also it would mean I wouldn’t be able to donate blood for 12 months.’ That’s an incredibly weird thing to take into the decision-making calculus when you’re approaching someone.
“It just seems like a really punitive measure to put against queer men and their partners, and a ton of other sectors of society,” he says.
Nolan has dedicated himself to researching the blood donation ban and its reasoning so their campaign group can achieve meaningful change. He has read documents from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that show how deferral periods like the one in place for queer men in Ireland make potential donors less likely to return.
“There are probably a lot of excited queer people in Ireland looking to donate blood, but the first time they go they’re told they’ll have to wait another year,” he says.
“These restrictions need to be abolished because we need an enthusiastic population looking to donate blood.”
Ireland’s blood transfusion service is conducting a review of the blood donation ban
Change could be on the horizon for Ireland’s LGBT+ community. The IBTS told PinkNews that an independent group is currently conducting a review of “social behaviours that may constitute a risk for transfusion transmissible infections”.
“This independent group will examine the scientific and epidemiological evidence relating to the risks of transfusion transmissible infections including practices in other countries,” a spokesperson said.
“This will include consideration of the individual risk assessment process that has been introduced in the UK. It is expected that the committee will make its recommendations to the IBTS in the autumn.”
Current blood donation ban ignores HIV screening advances
Nolan is also studying the HIV issue carefully. He acknowledges that HIV is “highly transmissible” through blood transfusion, so caution is needed.
“If you get infected with [HIV positive] blood, then yes, you are very likely to contract HIV. But these guidelines assume that every queer person who has had sex with a man is at risk for that disease which is unhelpful for a ton of reasons.”
He notes that 30 per cent of new HIV transmissions in Ireland in 2018 were actually through heterosexual sex.
“To assume that gay sex is more at risk is not unfounded, but definitely completely discriminatory when we assume that every gay man is more at risk,” he says.
Nolan also notes that one of the big differences between now and the 1980s is that we now have effective screening technology which can detect the presence of HIV in blood supplies.
“We can screen blood much more effectively now than we can in the ’80s. The window period for testing HIV in a person, how long it takes for it to be identifiable in a lab test, is shortened as well. The general window period as recommended by the CDC and AIDS Map is 30 days, so that’s when you’ll be able to see if a person exhibits HIV.”
He adds: “Straight people can also contract HIV, and the way that we prevent straight people passing on HIV through blood donations is by screening that blood, which is something we should afford gay people the opportunity to do as well.
“We allow straight people the opportunity to screen their blood post donation, we should allow gay individuals to do the same.”
Beyond the HIV question, O’Beirne suggests that the current blood donation ban “underlines stereotypes” about queer people.
“It is all just rooted in Ireland’s lack of sex education ultimately. It’s messed up that the IBTS is contributing to the overall stigma and overall miseducation and, frankly, no education around HIV.
“Miseducation, lack of education, and these rules contributes more and more to the stigma around HIV in Ireland.”
Both Nolan and O’Beirne would love the opportunity to donate blood in Ireland. Nolan says doing so “feels good” – he likes to help people in need. O’Beirne says the policy is “alienating”.
“It is just really dehumanising to push people away purely because of how they identify,” O’Beirne says. “It’s not something that is visible, it’s not something that makes up their whole person, it’s just part of their lifestyle. To be punished for that isn’t acceptable.”
They continue: “Ireland likes to paint itself as some queer liberation country – we voted in gay marriage, we’ve done so much, our taoiseach [was] a queer man – but we continue to discriminate against queer men in our healthcare system and treat their blood as not good enough for the general public.
“Even if I was to give blood today, I would feel guilty because I know so many other people would love to do it as well but they simply cannot, and if they do want to they have to lie about it. People shouldn’t be asked to hide their identities. You should be able to be proud of giving blood and of your sexual orientation.”
In short, the 12-month deferral period isn’t good enough – and Ireland’s young activists are adamant that change is needed.
“12 months is still a lifetime ban dressed up in different wording,” O’Beirne says.