Health Canada’s recent decision to ban gay men from donating organs is homophobic and could lead to hundreds of deaths a year, say doctors and politicians.
In December, Health Canada quietly enacted rules that prevent any man who has had sex even once with another man in the past five years from donating organs. Health Canada already bans any man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977 from donating blood.
Gary Levy, the head of Canada’s largest transplant program at Toronto’s University Health Network, says he refuses to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality and encourages gay men to continue to donate. Doctors will be able to use organs from gay men if they get the recipient’s consent and the doctor signs an “exceptional release” form.
“We will not disqualify anyone because of sexual orientation,” he says. “We could be angry at Health Canada but we shouldn’t punish the innocent on either side, those who need organs or those who want to donate. All we’ll have is some dead people who weren’t able to get organs.”
Levy estimates that gay men account for up to 15 percent of organ donations in Canada, both of live donations of kidneys and livers and of deceased donations. He says banning gay men from donating could mean up to 1,000 organs no longer available each year.
“When you’re talking about heart transplants, lung transplants, liver transplants, you’re talking about a lot of deaths,” says Levy. “The gay community seems to be more giving, much more on a proportional basis than other groups.”
Levy says Health Canada should continue to follow the existing guidelines which evaluate organ donations based on risky behaviour. He says doctors currently test donors and talk to them or to their survivors to evaluate the risk. Doctors will follow the same procedure under the new regulations to determine sexual orientation.
“Before this legislation came in we had rules that I thought worked very well,” says Levy. “They didn’t identify groups, they identified behaviour.”
Levy says he was not consulted on the new rules and doesn’t know any head of a transplant program who was.
The new regulations also exclude donations from those who have used non-medical intravenous drugs in the past five years, as well as those with recent tattoos or piercing.
Health Canada would not comment on the policy but an email from spokesperson Carole Saindon states that “These regulations are based on risk for safety purposes and not lifestyle choices…. A gay man who had practiced abstinence for the five years prior would be acceptable. Likewise a heterosexual man who had had a single sexual encounter with a male within the last five years would not be considered acceptable even though he is not gay.”
But Philip Berger, who has worked with AIDS patients for decades and is the head of family and community medicine at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says the new rules are clearly biased.
“It could easily be that any straight person who has unprotected sex is infected,” he says. “Heterosexual women who can have hundreds of sexual partners are never asked. All this does is promote the idea that it’s gay men’s fault that people get infected. It’s this sort of febrile obsession with gay men that’s been there since the start of the epidemic.”
Levy says he will be representing Ontario health minister George Smitherman in meetings with federal and provincial officials in an attempt to get the rules changed.
“Our plan is to convince the federal government to correct this,” he says. “In an ideal world they’d issue an apology as well.”
In a letter to Xtra Smitherman says he will continue to list himself as an organ donor.
“As a gay man who proudly carries every tissue and organ donation card I have ever received in my wallet, I was outraged by Health Canada’s new organ donation regulation,” he writes. “Quite simply targeting gay men is ludicrous and ridiculous. As Ontario’s Minister of Health I find the new regulations that single out a particular group irrelevant, ignorant and impractical…. Let’s be clear: Gay men can and should still continue to sign their organ donor cards and give the gift of life. I will continue to do so.”
Joshua Ferguson, codirector of Standing Against Queer Discrimination, a group trying to ban blood donor clinics from the University of Western Ontario campus, says the fact that the two bans operate on vastly different time periods is evidence of the lack of science behind them.
“It shows how arbitrary these bans are, not even the same rules,” says Ferguson.
— with files from Marcus McCann