The UK announced Monday that it would ease restrictions on blood donation by gay and bisexual men starting next year, a policy change that the government describes as a “milestone” and welcomed by activists who long fought against rules that they described as discriminatory.
The change will take effect next summer following a recommendation by a health committee that a general ban on sexually active gay or bisexual men who donate blood should be lifted. The government accepted these recommendations, saying the changes would not affect the safety of the blood supply.
“This landmark change in blood donation is safe and allows many more people previously excluded by donor selection criteria to take the opportunity to save lives,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement Monday.
The current rules state that “all men must wait three months after having oral or anal sex with another man before they can donate”.
A statement released Monday by the National Health Service removes the three-month barrier, stating that gay and bisexual men who have had the same sexual partner for more than three months are allowed to donate if they are not known to have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease and are not using drugs to stop the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The new rules apply to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“This opens so many new NHS blood and transplant donors that more lives will be saved,” wrote Stuart Andrew, Conservative Legislator and advocate for a revision of blood donation criteria, in The Times in London on on Monday.
Mr Andrew described how he had previously been banned from donating “based on who I am and who I love,” and he announced the change in restrictions as “one of the most landmark blood donation guidelines in the world”.
In Britain, activists had fought for a new policy for years. Around the world, similar restrictions have caused anger among gay rights activists who they call stigmatizing. Some men who have sex with other men even claimed they gave blood anyway out of frustration with the law.
“We have felt dirty for so many years,” said Ethan Spibey, founder of FreedomToDonate, a British activist group, over the phone. The group led a coalition that advocated equal blood donation and worked closely with the government on the overhaul.
“This policy is a fundamental shift towards recognizing people as individuals,” added Spibey, hoping that it “could potentially affect millions of gay and bi men worldwide.” For the first time, he added, “People are judged by their sexual behavior, not their sexuality.”
Mr Spibey said he began campaigning for restrictions to be lifted in 2014, several years after he was turned away from the blood bank for his sexual orientation. He was inspired to donate after his grandfather underwent life-saving surgery that required gallons of blood.
The new guidelines apply to all individuals who identify themselves as men and have sex with other men.
The UK joins a growing list of countries – France, Italy and Spain – that have relaxed blood donation rules for gay or bisexual men. Most of the restrictions were introduced in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, when global authorities feared that the blood supply could spread HIV.
However, since then new HIV infections have become rarer in Western countries and screening has improved significantly. Activists and many health experts have long said that the laws surrounding men who have sex with other men are out of date and add to the harmful stigma.
In 2017, the UK changed the timeframe for gay and bisexual men to forego sex for three months prior to a year donation, citing this as a safe buffer to ensure donated blood does not become infected. However, the health committee found that the three-month rule was not required for gay and bisexual men who had not engaged in risky sexual behavior.
“This shift to a more personalized approach is more appropriate and nuanced, and it helps destigmatize HIV,” said Deborah Gold, executive director of the National AIDS Trust, a UK organization promoting HIV rights.
In January, the National Health Service stated that more young men were needed to donate blood, citing a serious gender imbalance among donors.
“Many gay and bisexual men want to make their contribution and want to be able to donate blood and feel that they are doing that,” said Ms. Gold. “This change is good for them, and good for people in the broader sense, to have safer blood in their blood supply.”
In the United States and Australia, men who have sex with other men must wait three months after sex before donating blood. Both announced changes to their rules in April after thousands of community blood drives were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and global blood supplies declined. It is estimated that more than a million donations were lost in the United States alone.
However, medical professionals said the changes didn’t go far enough. A group of more than 500 doctors, researchers and public health professionals in the United States signed a letter urging authorities to lift the restrictions.
“We are not advocating a relaxation of standards that would compromise the security of our blood supply,” the doctors wrote. “Instead, we advocate scientifically sound standards that ensure the greatest possible security of blood supply while promoting justice and reversing historical discrimination in blood donation.”
Activists around the world said the UK’s move was a good start, but that there was more work to be done.
Jay Franzone, a Texas-based activist who abstained from sex in 2017 to raise awareness of US law, said in a phone interview on Sunday evening, “These policies are rooted in fear of HIV.” He described the US Restrictions as “ridiculous politics”.
“This is encouraging news, but this is not new science,” he added of the changes in the UK. “I look forward to the day when our policy changes in America and our political decisions are not guided by homophobia and fear.”
Anna Schaverien contributed to the reporting.