Recent reports have revealed that intake of new blood donors in Britain is down by a massive 40%. While news outlets speculate that a year's deferral for people with new tattoos and piercings is to blame, I'd contest that a bigger reason for the shortfall is the yearly ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men (MSM).
There are two reasons why this archaic law is so detrimental; firstly, it can cost people their lives. By snubbing donations by MSM, we are simply sanctioning people to death. Just one single donation can be administered to as many as three people; a quarter of people will need a blood transfusion in their life time, making the demand for blood transfusions around 16 million in the UK alone. However, confronted with that demand, our government still thinks it's sound policy to rule out an estimated five and a half million donors solely based on their non-heterosexual activity. The rather vapid rationalisation for not taking blood from MSM is that there is a higher risk of them carrying HIV or the Hepatitis B virus, as a matter of fact, the NHS revealed in 2012 that 4.7% of MSM's are HIV-positive, but does that statistic really matter? There is surely no issue in accepting blood from MSM if they don't carry HIV or any other harmful virus, meaning a blanket ban is unfair and damaging to all parties. So why is it that we deny up to five and a half million people the right to donate blood and save lives on the 1 in 20 chance that their blood might carry HIV or Hepatitis B virus, especially when it is actively tested for before donation anyway?
That same NHS report also revealed that 3.7% of British people of Black African descent carried HIV. There would rightly be uproar if there was a year-long blood donation ban on Black Africans on the 1 in 25 chance they too carry HIV or Hepatitis B. It's stereotyping and it's immoral. Another recent report on the continent shows that heterosexual women and lesbian women were experiencing the greatest rise in HIV contraction but yet again there is no imposition on either of those demographics. The truth of the matter is that this law is not in place to protect the health of those requiring a blood transfusion, but is in place on the back of an uncorrected stigma from thirty years ago. While it is fact that HIV is harmful, that Hepatitis B is incurable, and both are more likely to be carried by MSM, statistics show that more than 95% of MSM do not carry either virus and could help recover the shortfall in blood donations.
This law proves, despite the right's best protestations that the crusade for LGBT+ equality didn't end last year when the Tories begrudgingly allowed the Lib Dems to pass marriage equality. It's not only that this law is an unnecessary hindrance to saving lives; it's also an infringement on the rights of LGBT+ people to give blood. In fact, perhaps the most confusing part of this legislation is its apparent assumption that men who sleep with women never have sex casually and if they do, always do so safely - yet there are more heterosexuals with HIV in the UK than there are non-heterosexuals. The law correctly reflects that MSM are higher risk than most demographics but also incorrectly assumes that those who partake in heterosexual activity are no risk - so surely it should either be deferral for all or open donations for all?
The pressure needs to be dialled up until we reach a cross-party consensus to lift this ban and start to champion equality and more importantly save lives. The Labour party have finally joined the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in support of scrapping this law and the Tories' heads are slowly being turned too. Those passionate about equality and health need to start pushing this issue higher in the political agenda, making it clear that lives count for more than stereotypes.
We all want an NHS that puts our health at the heart of its decision making but we're currently abiding by legislation where, for example, a 7-year-old girl would be refused a life-saving blood donation from her uncle because he had sex with his male partner of twenty years a few weeks ago and despite knowing his negative status. Does that seem right to you?
It's fairly clear that the one year deferral on blood donations for MSM is nonsensical; it is rupturing equality and literally killing more people than this law was enforced to protect. This ruling is largely based on an out-of-date stigma that has never been legislatively amended, we cannot, especially in a time of falling rates of blood donation and an under pressure health service, continue to champion this eugenic discrimination - stigma is never a reason to gamble with people's lives. Apparently, to put a twist on an old adage, blood is thicker than water but it's not thicker than homophobia.