The federal Conservative government is being accused of political interference in the recent decision to ban gay men from donating organs.
The decision by Health Canada, enacted quietly in December, prohibits a man who has had sex with another man even once in the past five years from donating organs.
“Given that there has been no demonstrated scientific evidence of problems with donations from gay men it can only be a result of ideology on the part of the Conservative government and their ongoing homophobia,” says Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the health critic for the New Democratic Party. “They’re catering to their religious and conservative base.
“I think we have to assume it is a government intervening in what should be the independent decisionmaking process,” she says. “It’s political interference.”
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 release” process, certifying that they are aware of the risk involved in using organs from a gay man.
Nobody from Health Canada would answer Xtra’s questions about how the policy was developed but spokesperson Carole Saindon emailed a statement saying that there was extensive consultation before the policy was enacted.
However Saindon writes, “Due to privacy concerns, we cannot release the name of individuals or organizations who participated as stakeholders.”
She writes that Health Canada did consult with hospitals, universities, organ donor organizations, doctors, dentists, provincial governments, ethicists, consumer groups and transplant recipient representatives.
Gary Levy, the director of Canada’s largest transplant program at Toronto’s University Health Network, told Xtra he wasn’t consulted and doesn’t know any other transplant program head who was. Ontario health minister George Smitherman has publicly opposed the ban.
Saindon also writes that “three public consultations were held where all Canadians were invited to comment.”
Federal health minister Tony Clement did not respond to questions about whether he was involved in the decision. Nor did he respond to questions about whether other groups with high numbers of people with HIV, such as those from sub-Saharan Africa or aboriginals, should be treated similarly. He also did not answer a question about whether young heterosexual women, the group with the fastest-growing rate of HIV infection in Canada, should be added to the list.
In fact, Health Canada’s decision may be based on guidelines in the US where they are not actually enforced.
The five-year ban on donations from gay men appears to match guidelines put out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the rules of organ donation in the US.
But according to Leland Traiman — who runs the Rainbow Flag Health Services and Sperm Bank in Alameda, California — and Joel Ginsberg, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, the FDA guidelines are not official.
“The US doesn’t have an outright ban,” says Traiman. “The federal donor regulations, which also apply to sperm banks, don’t mention gay men. However they have guidelines where they recommend you don’t use gay men.
“Most places are so fearful of going against the FDA that they don’t accept the organs,” he says. “They just run along with their tails between their legs.”
Traiman says the FDA has not made its guidelines official regulations because it’s worried it will be sued by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for discrimination.
“They tried to enact them for five years,” he says. “I went to all their meetings and threatened them with lawsuits. I took the ACLU with me.”
Traiman runs one of what he says are only three sperm banks in the US that accept sperm from gay men. In Canada gay men are banned from donating sperm.
Traiman says even having such guidelines in place causes tremendous harm.
“The organ ban is literally a regulation that could condemn someone on the transplant list to death,” he says, “and the sperm ban is a complete, 100 percent, irrational, unscientific act of discrimination.”
FDA guidelines appear to match Health Canada’s ban in most ways. Both ban gay men and nonmedical IV drug users from donating for five years from the last time they had sex or used IV drugs. Both impose a similar ban on anyone who has taken money for sex.
But both also have an exclusion period of only a year for anyone who has had heterosexual sex with anyone in any of those groups.
Both Canada and the US ban men from donating blood if they’ve had sex with another man even once since 1977.
For more on this story visit Doctors say gay organ ban could lead to deaths — Jan 14, 2008