Gay and bisexual men will soon be able to donate blood in Canada without first being required to remain celibate for three months. The U.S. still has a similar ban in place.
Canadian Blood Services (CBS) announced the change on Thursday. The national agency will now screen potential donors using a questionnaire about their number of sexual partners and recent engagement in anal sex.
CBS said that it revised its policy after a thorough 90-day “assessment of evidence supporting the safety of the revised donor screening.” All donated blood in Canada is screened for HIV and other transmissible diseases before being given to others.
“Today’s authorization is a significant milestone toward a more inclusive blood donation system nationwide, and builds on progress in scientific evidence made in recent years,” Health Canada said in a statement.
“Sexual behavior, not sexual orientation, determines the risk of sexual transmission of bloodborne pathogens,” said Dr. Isra Levy, CBS’ vice-president of medical affairs.
The now-defunct celibacy requirement was a holdover from the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. In 1992, thousands of Canadian blood recipients were exposed to HIV-infected blood that hadn’t been properly screened by the then-active Canadian Red Cross.
Canada, like the U.S., initially responded to the crisis by banning all gay and bisexual men from ever donating blood. Then, in 2013, Canada changed the policy to one requiring gay and bi men to abstain from anal sex for five years before donating. In 2019, the Canadian abstinence period was reduced to three months.
“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,” said Community-Based Research Centre’s Acting Executive Director Michael Kwag.
In the U.S., gay and bi men must still abstain from anal sex for three months before being allowed to donate. The current prohibitions on gay and bi male donors would forbid a man from donating blood to his own dying husband, even if the two were in an exclusive monogamous relationship.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration initially began its lifetime ban on gay, bi and queer male blood donors back in 1983. In 2015, these donors were allowed to give blood after abstaining from sex for 12 months. Even after the abstinence period was reduced to three months, the requirement remained discriminatory since no similar abstinence period was required from women or heterosexual men.
In April 2020, attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia signed a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to end the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men.
A 2014 study from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law Williams Institute said that getting rid of the gay and bi blood donor ban would “produce over 2 million additional eligible blood donors, including nearly 175,000 likely blood donors, and would produce nearly 300,000 pints of additional donated blood annually,” potentially saving the lives of more than a million people.