Explainer: Changing Canada’s blood donation ban

An update on abolishing the policy restricting men who have sex with men from donating blood

Men who have sex with men may soon have an increased eligibility to donate blood in Canada. (Pixabay)

Canada could be seeing a change to the federal policy that restricts members of the LGBTQ2S+ community from donating blood for months after they engage in sexual activity.

There has been a long-running controversy about the policy that prohibits men who engage in sexual activity with other men (MSM) from donating blood, citing the risk of spreading HIV and Hepatitis C infection. The federal Liberal Party promised during their 2015 and 2019 federal election campaigns to end the ban entirely, but the fact the ban is still in place has left gay, bisexual men, and trans folks feeling discriminated against and excluded, and many are pushing the government to remove it for good.

Christopher Karas, a gay man in Ontario, filed a complaint in 2016 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Health Canada after he was denied the ability to donate blood. After waiting for years, Karas’ case will be heard by a court this month.

“To have erroneous policies that are archaic and discriminatory like this, barring donors and discouraging donors from donating and creating stigma, is an inappropriate way for our blood system to operate,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Under the current policy, MSM individuals who are eligible to donate blood have to be celibate for at least three months prior to donation.

The original implementation of the ban was made in the 1980s because AIDS and HIV outbreaks were associated with sexual activity between men. However, this was ultimately  proven inaccurate, and several changes by Health Canada were made since then, including a change in 2013 allowing men to donate blood after five years of celibacy. In 2015, the Liberal party advocated for abolishing such a policy and stated that it “ignores scientific evidence and must end.”

In the following year, the five-year ban was reduced to only a year. And in 2019, another reduction happened with only three months required of a deferral period, which is currently observed by Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec.

In Health Canada’s submission to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2019, they said they do not have authority to revoke the policy which induces the alleged discrimination.

Gregory Ko, Karas’ lawyer, said this is a “big optics concern,” for Ottawa.

“Certainly [it’s] a government that does not want to shine a light on its involvement in this discriminatory policy, and that’s kind of what is disturbing about the move on the part of the federal government,” Ko said.

“We know it’s important. Canadian Blood Services’ end goal is to implement behaviour-based screening for all donors rather than a waiting period for men who have sex with men,” CBS said in a statement emailed to Global News.

This approach has proven effective with no significant increase in transfusion-related HIV cases since 2001 in other countries like Italy that have a person-to-person risk assessment. Portugal and Mexico have also used risk-based sexual exposure targeted assessments since 2010 and 2012, respectively.

The Minister of Health Patty Hadju said that the Liberals are still “working to bring an end to the discriminatory policy” regarding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement in June 2020 about being “very hopeful” about seeing the upcoming changes soon.