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Day of action on organ ban

Queers plan Hill protest against donor policy

HEY HEY, HO HO. Students at the University of Western Ontario protest in front of a local Health Canada office. They're taking it to the Hill Feb 26. Credit: (Courtesy of SAQD)

Queers, led by university students, will march on Parliament Hill to show their anger at Canada’s new organ donor policy. Meanwhile, developments show Ontario is trying to distance itself from the new federal rules.

In December Health Canada — which sets nationwide rules for organ donations — quietly enacted regulations prohibiting a man who has had sex with another man even once in the past five years from donating organs.

Technically gay men are still allowed to donate organs but in order for those organs to be used, doctors and recipients have to go through a special “exceptional distribution” process certifying that they are aware of the risk involved in using organs from a gay man.

Gays across the country have spoken out against the ban, but nowhere more vocally than on university campuses. Standing Against Queer Discrimination, a London, Ontario-based group, was already fighting the rules which prohibit gay men from donating blood when the organ rules were released, says SAQD’s Joshua Ferguson.

“You can’t really talk about one without talking about the other now,” says Ferguson. “On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that gay men are now prohibited from donating organs if they’ve been sexually active in the last five years, but it illustrates how ridiculous and unfounded these policies are.”

That’s because the blood donor rules stipulate a lifetime ban on men who’ve had sex with another man — even once — whereas the organ donor rules have a five-year expiry. It helps illustrate that rules are “arbitrary,” he says.

Ferguson and other students from the University of Western Ontario will bus from London to Ottawa on Feb 26 for a demonstration on Parliament Hill. They will be joined by students from Ottawa, Montreal and Kingston.

“We’re reaching out to other campuses. Queen’s, Concordia — they’ll all be coming to Ottawa,” says Ferguson.

Meanwhile, the head of the organization overseeing organ donations in Ontario says gay men should not let new regulations stop them from contributing their organs.

“The message we want to send to the gay community is that we want them to be donors,” says Frank Markel, president of the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN). “The first message is we’ve heard your concerns and we’re responding. The second is we’d like you to be donors.”

Markel says the new regulations are based on existing guidelines and do not change the procedures commonly followed in Canada for organ donations. But he says the new regulations make it much harder to deal sensitively with gay men.

“Before if we didn’t want to do it that way we had the freedom to change,” he says. “Now we have no choice. Ultimately Health Canada could close us.”

Markel says he thinks Health Canada’s policy is based on out-of-date science.

“The wording goes back to 1994,” he says. “It was actually developed by the Centres for Disease Control in the States. That wording was developed from the understanding of AIDS in the early ’90s. Some 15 years later our understanding has changed.”

George Smitherman, the Ontario minister of health and an out gay politician, says he’s been battling with Health Canada since he took office over their ban on gay men donating blood. Smitherman urges gay men to continue to donate organs.

“My primary motivation is I know people who need the organs,” he says. “You meet people who are languishing on the waiting list needing organs and these regulations work against it. We have to keep working to see if we can get a little more common sense in the process. They took away a little of that common sense latitude.”

But not all provincial bodies seem concerned by Health Canada’s approach. BC Transplant — that province’s equivalent of TGLN — has no problem with the new regulations.

Allison Brown — the communications coordinator for the agency, which administered a record 262 transplants last year — says the regulations are necessary.

“There just have to be some blanket standards across the board,” she says. “The regulations exist to identify who should be considered high risk.”

Brown says she doesn’t think the regulations actually discriminate against gay men.

“It doesn’t actually identify gay men,” she says. “It says men who have sex with men. That could be someone living down the street who has a wife and kids.”

Brown says BC Transplant does still welcome organ donations from gay men.

“My message is you’re still a potential donor,” she says. “Our position is that every person should be a donor and every organ that can be transplanted should be.”

—with files from Marcus McCann