Posted Under: Gay Rights,Health Care,Minorities,Public Sector,Society
As you may or may not have noticed, there’s recently been a series of ads in various places urging us all to give blood. This is because the National Blood Service (NBS) wants us all to donate now so it can boost its stocks before the winter when we’re all going to have swine flu so we won’t be able to donate. However, the well-informed among you will know that my use of “all” in that last sentence was an exaggeration. Among other restrictions, they don’t want you to give blood if you weigh less than 50kg, if you’ve recently travelled to a malarial zone…or if you’re male and you’ve ever had sex with another man. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this last restriction has proved somewhat controversial, and a number of commentators have at various times attacked it as homophobic, most recently this guy on the Guardian website today.
It’s probably best to leave aside the thorny metaphysical issue of precisely which entity Charlie Critchley and his fellow critics are accusing of homophobia (the Chief Executive of the NBS? The organisation itself? Some of its employees?), so let’s focus on two questions. First, is the NBS right to have this ban? Second, is the ban evidence of homophobia? On the first question, I’m prepared to remain agnostic. The NBS has a pretty detailed and, as far as I can tell, sensible explanation of the reasons for its ban, and some of the criticisms of the policy are simply misguided – witness Peter Tatchell’s completely erroneous claim (albeit not repeated in any of his subsequent writings on the subject) that the ban covers “[m]en whose homosexual experience is limited to a few mutual wanks behind the school bike sheds”, when it quite explicitly only applies to oral or anal sex. Equally, though, there seems little reason (for example) to exclude from donating men who haven’t had sex with other men since before the AIDS epidemic, and plenty of other countries have lifted their own blanket bans in the past few years.
But even if the NBS is wrong to have the blanket ban in place, it doesn’t follow that we should conclude that the ban is the product of homophobia. Bear in mind here that the NBS is in constant, urgent need of blood supplies. If you visit their homepage, one of the first things that catches your eye is a gif reading, “WE ARE RUNNING LOW OF BLOOD GROUP O NEG, B NEG AND AB NEG. WE NEED NEW DONORS NOW”. The accusation of homophobia, if correct, would mean that the NBS (or its employees or whoever) is unnecessarily putting the lives of those who need blood at risk simply because of a prejudice against gay men. This could indeed be the case. But how plausible is it? Inferring that the very existence of a ban is evidence of homophobia seems uncharitable to say the least. The NBS also bans from donating anyone who has themselves had a blood transfusion in the past 30 years, on the basis of a single case where vCJD (aka Mad Cow Disease) might have been transmitted via blood transfusion. Given this, it seems far more likely that all the NBS’s restrictions on donation are the result of extreme caution (as suggested by the assertion, from the PDF linked to above, that “any transmission as a result of a change in policy would be one too many”), rather than homophobia.
I can understand that the donation ban might feel unpleasant and stigmatising for gay and bisexual men who want to donate blood. And it’s quite possible that the ban is misguided and should be repealed. But deciding who should and shouldn’t be allowed to give blood requires the very careful weighing up of different risk factors, including the disproportionately high incidence of HIV among men who have sex with men. Angry accusations of homophobia aren’t going to make that decision any simpler.