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CBS comments are “spin”: John Plater

CBS tempers comments endorsing one-year deferral

Credit: Mia Hansen illustration

Staff at Canadian Blood Services (CBS) told reporters Jan 26 that a policy prohibiting gay men from donating blood for life is outdated and needs to change. They called on their regulator, Health Canada, to relax the rules.

CBS asks each male blood donor if he’s had sex with a man, even once, since 1977. If he has, he’s ineligible to donate blood. This week, CBS signalled that it would prefer a one-year deferral period for donors after they’ve had gay sex.

“There have been lots of changes in the environment, lots of changes in testing [and] lots of changes on the international front,” Lorna Tessier, director of public relations for CBS told the Toronto Star.

But by Jan 27, CBS spokespeople were already backtracking.

Viral media coverage saying CBS wants to lift its gay blood donor deferral is not news, says blood bank spokesperson Ron Vezina.

“There is no change. It’s exactly what we said during the Freeman trial. We’re continuing down the same path. When the judge said a 33-year ban is unsustainable, we couldn’t agree more. But we need evidence for what we should change it to. Until we have an alternative, we’re stuck with it,” says Vezina.

“[That’s been CBS’s position] since September. I don’t know what the news is here. I think our PR directors were talking to someone in Winnipeg, and they probably didn’t know we were open to change. We said the same thing since [the Kyle Freeman trial.] But we don’t have evidence to what it can change to.”

The news comes just months after the conclusion of the Kyle Freeman trial. Freeman ended a decade-long battle with CBS over the ban in 2010, after an Ontario court ruled against him. The Toronto man lied about his sexuality in order to donate blood. Those involved mused publicly about dropping the Freeman appeal to focus instead on a challenge of the ban proceeding through Quebec court.

Reached for comment, blood-ban activist Kyle Freeman says he is happy the debate is being fuelled but that “nothing seems to be changed from CBS’s original position.”

“I believe this is an accidental news story and blown out of proportion in the media,” says Freeman.

Doug Elliott, a lawyer who intervened in the Freeman case, remains skeptical.

“Good news? Yes, definitely. But I have been disappointed by them before and so I’m cautious,” says Elliott.

Tessier calls the latest round of press a misunderstanding. It originated out of three presentations she did for the University of Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba and a group of lawyers. Her comment — “a lifetime ban extending by one year every year is just not sustainable” — was taken out of context.

But Tessier says the current news is CBS “put our money where our mouth is.” It wants to research what an appropriate deferral could be and is funding a $500,000 grant, which has been open for applications since 2008. The funding is administered by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

In other words, the agency previously said it would look at research pushing for change. Now it is going after it.

“We’re getting impatient too. After the decision Aiken made, when you think of it, she ruled our policy was not discriminatory. So no one is forcing us [to find a new deferral period]. The blood system is not in crisis. It’s the right thing to do,” says Tessier. “For us to go to Health Canada, any change we suggest has to have evidence to present to them. That is why we put our money where our mouth is and launched a significant fund. We agree a lifetime ban is unacceptable. What we’re saying now is this research is going to show ultimately what we can change that policy to.”

Vezina says he hopes the public understands that CBS staff welcomes change. They are interested in a one-year deferral period. They just need science to back it up and a go from Health Canada to relax the rules.

“There are still people who are going to say that’s not far enough,” says Vezina.

But that doesn’t sit well with Adrian Lomega, the man at the centre of the Quebec challenge.

“They’ve already funded studies in the past where they did nothing, so is this a ploy to delay things? Are they genuine? I’ll wait and see,” says Lomega.

Before the Freeman decision, CBS held a number of roundtables and put together an advisory panel on the subject of gays and blood donation. After the decision, Egale, the Canadian AIDS Society and the Canadian Federation of Students all resigned from CBS’s lesbian, gay, bi and trans consultation group, saying they didn’t believe CBS was “sincere” about change.

John Plater, Canadian Hemophilia Society (CHS) spokesperson, says the media coverage is a CBS public relations exercise. He says the timing, coming the day before his organization’s yearly report card, is “interesting” and raises a number of concerns about CBS.

“CBS’s position has always been they will make a change when the science supports it. I’m not surprised this story is out there giving the impression CBS is changing its mind on gay blood donor deferral. It may take away from the impact of that report card being released today. The media is focused on the MSM blood deferral and not looking at recent appointments CBS has made to its board,” says Plater.

Plater says the real story is CHS feels CBS’s accountability is taking a giant step backwards.

“The fact the CBS is behind a story that they have a new position on MSM deferral, which they don`t, just seems like more than a coincidence,” says Plater. “It just raises questions about their overall commitment” to a safe blood supply.

Gays and their allies have been fighting the blood ban for years, but the battle gained national traction five years ago after a controversial protest at McGill University.

Joshua Ferguson has been following blood ban activism since he was a student at the University of Western Ontario. As a student, he formed Standing Against Queer Discrimination [SAQD], a group that rallied for an end to the CBS’s indefinite deferral policy.

“When SAQD and other queer student and non-student organizations were at the height of advocating this ban a few years ago, CBS maintained a firm position that the ban was not discriminatory. In fact, extensive arguments with CBS stemmed from their denial of the ban being discriminatory and its dangerous effects on perpetuating and increasing homophobia in our society,” says Ferguson.

“However, I do believe that CBS has been forced to admit that the ban is discriminatory in the wake of Justice Catherine Aitken’s statement from the Freeman case. If Justice Aitken is articulating that the ban is archaic and requires updating, then CBS’s hand has been forced.”