Blood saves lives. From accidents and injuries to chronic diseases, many millions have benefitted from the donations of complete strangers. But the procedure is not completely without risk and many precautions are taken to ensure that blood-borne viruses, including HIV and hepatitis, are not spread through donations.
However, one precaution that has existed in some countries for many years has led to one group of society unable to donate blood regardless of their health or lifestyle.
All across the world men who have sex with men (MSM) face difficulties when it comes to donating blood in their country. The HIV panic of the 1980s created a lot of stigma for gay and bisexual men, which still remains today in much of European society. However it is not the public attitudes, but outdated legislation that has left many otherwise healthy men to be blocked from contributing to a valuable cause.
Attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals and MSM vary across the world, but in Europe these individuals benefit from a level of freedom not seen in some parts of the world. However, as a whole, Europe’s policies towards MSM blood donations do not reflect the relatively progressive attitudes of the continent.
In 2014 Turkish activists raised concerns over their country’s attitude towards LGBT+ blood donors, claiming that the Turkish Red Crescent’s policy for banning MSM donors was unnecessary and based on homophobic attitudes as opposed to fact or need.
The Red Crescent responded to concerns by claiming that their ban across all donation centres was because MSM in Turkey existed in a ‘higher risk’ demographic. However, although HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections disproportionately affect LGBT+ men than other groups there is no scientific consensus confirming that precautions such as these are necessary.
In fact, in some countries this is not the case. Medical science has for a long time been at the point where infections from a ‘bad batch’ of blood are at incredibly low, almost non-existent, levels when testing and other precautions are taken. In Italy, Spain and Portugal for example there are no restrictions on blood donors based on anything other than their health. Screening for viruses such as HIV and hepatitis are given to donors in the same way that they are in all countries, though unlike some nations the authorities in these agree that these tests are enough to reasonably protect patients from any potential risk.
When blood donations are a much needed service for many countries it seems illogical that so many nations would still continue laws that are outdated, laws that impede and stigmatise and have no true benefit.
The protests raised in Turkey are similar to those seen in the UK, USA and other nations where public awareness of the issue is rising. In June 2013, the American Medical Association publicly called for a change in nationally policy, claiming that “the lifetime ban on blood donation for MSM is discriminatory and not based on sound science”.
These bans are an outdated relic from the HIV-panic era, they come from a time when understanding was low and fear was high. They served little purpose at the time and now remain only as an obstacle.
It is an example of a blanket treatment that does not properly handle each individual. It is a knee-jerk reaction that affects men, women and others who are otherwise completely without risk of spreading any form of virus that furthermore has helped enforce the stigma already existing that surrounds LGBT+ men’s health.
And the health, or at least the infectiousness, of gay and bisexual men is the only taboo that seems to support these bans.
Many of us can appreciate the fear that the emergence of HIV brought with it, but the reality in modern Europe is different to what it once was. Europe, especially Western Europe, benefits from a relatively developed health infrastructure. People are healthier, better informed and more cautious. In some countries levels of sex education are at all-time highs. In my own country of the UK for example it is incredibly rare to meet an LGBT man who does not ‘know his status’ when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
But sadly a combination of misinformation, stigma and poor legislation has left many gay and bisexual men unable to contribute to society in this way. Europe once took rash actions through fear and now all that remains is a collection of unreasonable laws that should only ever have been temporary at best.
It is a problem with seemingly easy solutions. And until action is taken many lives will suffer at the hands of lumbering lawmakers who fail to take effective action.
Tom Ana is a charity worker and blogger from England with an interest in human rights and LGBT issues. He is the editor of Euroclash!. You can follow him on Twitter here!