Blood Ban Removal Rests on the Right Side of History

4 minute read

The Canadian Blood Services has concluded an important change that advocates have been fighting towards for three decades. Last week, Health Canada approved the Canadian Blood Services’ request to end a policy that restricted men who have sex with men from donating blood for three months after being sexuality active. This policy change was a key election platform commitment from the 2015 Liberal campaign that first elected Prime Minister Trudeau’s government, and many of his Liberal caucus Members have been championing this cause, in the face of pressure from the NDP and some vocal Conservative MPs. While all parties celebrate this vital change, the government has faced consistent criticism from the opposition, media and civil society for the long, drawn out process to finally reverse this discriminatory policy.

Canada’s ban was first put in place in 1992 as a measure to prevent HIV from entering Canadian blood supply. It came in the wake of a 1980s public health scandal where some 2,000 people were infected with HIV and up to 60,000 with Hepatitis C from tainted blood donations amid testing failures.

Now, Canada follows countries including France, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Denmark and Brazil in lifting restrictions for blood donations. The United Kingdom also eliminated its own three month ban on blood donations just last year.

Decades of advocacy work influenced the promise to reverse this policy in Trudeau’s 2015 campaign, where the Liberal platform commited to end what they called a discriminatory ban. In 2016 – early in Trudeau’s first mandate – the government lowered the deferral period, allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood after abstaining from sex with other men for one year, instead of five. However, this change did not meet the mark for many advocacy groups, the gay community and concerned opposition members, with the Liberal promise having yet to be fulfilled.

Now in Trudeau’s third mandate as Prime Minister, the Liberal government can finally say they have met their 2015 commitment to end the discriminatory blood ban. This now means that Canadian Blood Services will be able to screen all donors regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Instead, donors will be screened based on their sexual behaviours. It is expected they will implement the new behaviour-based questionnaire approach by September 30.

Conservative Member of Parliament Eric Duncan, who is the first openly gay Conservative MP, spoke to the blood ban removal. Although he welcomed the news, he cautioned that “it did not need to take this long,” and urged that “more leadership and urgency is needed to have this easy, simple and safe change made sooner.” A popular Conservative MP, and former Conservative Health Critic, Michelle Rempel Garner, immediately spoke to the news saying, “a lot of hard work went into this – excellent news.” In 2020, as Canadian blood supply donations were dwindling as a result of the pandemic, Rempel Garner spoke to this in her role as Health Critic. She showed apprehension on the issue stating “Conservatives stand for removing barriers to equality of opportunity. The blood ban clearly falls into that category. It needs to go. Trudeau has had five years to do so.”

On the NDP side, while the Liberals and NDP navigate their new parliamentary agreement, the NDP Critic and Deputy Critic for 2SLGBTQI+ Rights, Randall Garrison and Blake Desjarlais had some pointed criticism on timeline and details, while celebrating the historic achievement. In a joint statement, they applauded the change noting that “finally allowing men who have sex with men to donate blood is a long-overdue victory.” However, they swiftly reminded Canadians that the NDP first presented a motion to lift the blood ban in 2014, before Trudeau’s election promise. The NDP say since this motion, they have been relentless in calls on the government to remove this barrier to greater equality, and said the federal government repeatedly refused to remove this discriminatory ban despite considerable proof that their policy was harmful and not evidence-based.

While both sides of the aisle believe the removal of the blood ban is on the right side of history, credit for this achievement goes to those tireless advocates and allies who never relented in spite of the long journey. Ultimately, having both opposition and government MPs embrace this change can also symbolize a victory, although the drawn out process has been fairly criticized. Organizers, advocates, and communities impacted by the removal of the blood ban deserve to celebrate this significant accomplishment. This is also an opportunity to reflect on what this change means for those who have been discriminated against by this policy over the last three decades, and for future generations.

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