VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - After years of actively pressuring Health Canada, Canadian Blood Services, and the federal government to change its blood donor screening policy, Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) commends the federal department’s decision to enact a gender-neutral behaviour-based approach for all blood donors in lieu of the long-standing “men who have sex with men” (MSM) specific deferral.
“Canada is finally catching up to other countries, which already operate blood systems with a gender-neutral approach to donor screening,” says CBRC’s Acting Executive Director Michael Kwag. “Health Canada’s original policy was discriminatory and encouraged stigma and ignorance around queer men’s and trans people’s health. It also undermined Canada’s blood supply, which can run precariously low.”
For over a decade, CBRC has been advocating for gender-neutral blood donor deferral policies in Canada, regularly engaging and meeting with Canadian Blood Services (CBS) on the issue. In 2020, CBRC published the policy brief, “Ending the Discriminatory Blood Ban: A Safe, More Inclusive Blood Supply,” which made the case for a gender-neutral donor screening process – deferring potential donors based on specific sexual practices, not their sex assigned at birth, gender identity, sexual orientation, or these characteristics of their partners.
“Our research with gay, bisexual, trans, and queer men and Two-Spirit and non-binary people has shown strong support for gender-neutral screening asking about specific sexual practices,” says CBRC Research Director Nathan Lachowsky who is also an Associate Professor at the University of Victoria. “Our research with patients who receive blood products also indicates their support for such a change, driven by a desire for more evidence-based screening of all blood donors on the specific sexual practices known to be associated with HIV acquisition.”
This gender-neutral approach to blood donor screening reflects Recommendation #23 in the federal Standing Committee on Health’s (HESA) 2019 report on The Health of LGBTQIA2 Communities in Canada: “That the Government of Canada end all discriminatory practices related to blood, organ and tissue donation for men who have sex with men and trans people and adopt donor screening policies that are evidence-based, gender neutral, and behaviour-based.” CBRC actively participated in HESA’s study and fully supported this recommendation.
Even with this victory, CBRC stresses that more work still needs to be done. The original policy contributed to the stigmatizing idea that gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men are inherently unsafe, and CBS must engage in public education campaigns to dispel stereotypes and fight misconceptions about our communities. The same should be done for other intersecting groups who have similarly not been allowed to donate, such as Black Canadians. These groups have been marginalized by former policies – and it is important that as policies change and deferrals are lifted, Health Canada and CBS work in and with these communities to make reparations and reinforce positive change.
To read CBRC’s original policy brief, please visit: https://www.cbrc.net/ending_the_discriminatory_blood_ban