Canadian scientists will soon start research aimed at assuring the federal government that it’s safe for sexually active gay and bisexual men to donate blood.
But the Liberals are facing increasing criticism after pledging to end these restrictions entirely.
MP Randy Boissonnault, the Liberal’s special advisor on LGBTQ2 issues, appeared at the House of Commons health committee on Feb 2, 2017, for its ongoing investigation into the federal policy that bars men from donating blood if they’ve had sex with another man in the past 12 months.
In June 2016, Canada dropped its deferral period for men who have sex with men from five years to one, making it among the last western countries to do so.
Boissonnault told the committee that the deferral policy was “based on the best science that was available at the time” but nevertheless discriminates against gay and bisexual men, especially monogamous ones.
Canadian government pledges $3 million for research
The government pledged $3 million in June 2016 to research whether Canada should reduce or entirely drop its restrictions on gay men donating blood.
Some of that funding (CBS said it couldn’t calculate an estimate) went to a two-day Toronto conference on Jan 24 called “Next steps for the MSM donor policy.” Roughly 50 researchers from Canada and abroad attended the conference, alongside patient advocates and LGBT representatives.
Boissonnault said the conference “literally set the scientific agenda moving forward for the research that has yet to be conducted.” It focused on the lack of Canadian data for low-risk gay men, and the two-month period it takes for most pathogens to appear in blood samples.
“We are moving as fast — and as well as we can as a government. We cannot tell [Canadian Blood Services] and Héma-Québec to reduce this to zero. That's not how this works,” Boissonnault told the committee. (Canadian Blood Services facilitates all blood donations outside Quebec, where Héma-Québec plays a similar role; both follow almost-matching protocols.)
But NDP MP Don Davies challenged Boissonnault’s suggestion that the government can’t tell the blood service agencies what to do. “There is no doubt that this decision . . . can absolutely be overwritten by the minister,” he told the committee.
According to Canada's blood regulations, the federal health minister may “remove a term or condition from an authorization if she or he determines that the term or condition is no longer necessary to prevent a compromise to human safety or the safety of blood.”
He also said the policy discriminates against monogamous gay men, when even a straight college student with multiple partners can donate. “Show me the science that shows that that makes sense.”
Yet that was exactly Davies’ point.
“You seem to be suggesting that data needs to be shown to prove that it’s okay to have this blood, when I would say the opposite. If we’re going to adopt a discriminatory practice . . . it’s incumbent upon those who assert that, to supply data to show why that's necessary.”
At the committee, Davies read from the Liberal party’s platform pledge to “bring an end to the discriminatory ban” that “ignores scientific evidence.”
Conservative MP Len Webber asked if the government plans to break that promise. “When do you see this happening? This is a decision that you will have to make as a government. Is this something that you are now backing off on?”
Boissonnault responded that the January conference was the first step. Webber, who had the health committee investigate the policy, added it was “insulting” the government didn’t invite Conservative MPs.
Conference researchers focused on science, evidence-based approach
Though the conference was closed the public and media, Xtra obtained the agenda and spoke with two attendees.
Michael Bach, founder of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, says the conference was extremely science-focused, with lots of research terminology.
“We were all there under the understanding that we want to see the deferral changed,” Bach says. “Everyone was in the right frame of mind.”
He says the Liberals had “exactly the right approach” because data to justify lowering the deferral would prevent future governments from increasing it.
Dr Terry Trussler, a director at Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre, also says the researchers focused on what evidence would be needed to change the policy “without jeopardizing the system.”
He says there were interesting exchanges with scientists from several countries including Italy and Portugal.
Trussler says his group intends to submit research proposals under the fund. CBS estimates that 400 rejected MSM donors became eligible in June 2016 when the deferral period dropped from five years to one year. Trussler said they might evaluate whether those people attempted to donate blood, and what their experience was like.
CBS is taking proposals for $2.75 million of the $3 million research fund until April, exploring questions like how to identify “a low-risk population of MSM eligible to donate,” the risks of bringing in more donors and “the feasibility of a gender-blind deferral policy.” It’s unclear how long these research projects will run, but the agency notes that research heads will have to submit progress reports every six months.
Trans people still face restrictions on blood donation
At the committee, Boissonnault slammed CBS for “onerous” restrictions it put on trans people in an Aug 2016 policy to screen donors according to their genitalia when determining whether they count as MSM. Héma-Québec sorts trans people on a case-by-case basis.
“We are actually forcing people to go back to their birth gender to be determined if they can give blood or not,” he said, noting he’d met a Vancouver trans activist who can now give blood 14 months after her surgery, despite not being able to prior.
“We've got ourselves in this kind of perverse way of defining populations and subpopulations,” Boissonnault said. “I want a safe blood supply, but I also want an inclusive blood supply.”