New restrictive blood donation rules for gay men not cast in stone

Equality Minister says further liberalisation of gay men's blood donation rules is possible

Gay men's blood donation rules might be relaxed further in the future, Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said
Gay men's blood donation rules might be relaxed further in the future, Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said

New rules that will allow gay men to donate blood after abstaining from sex for one year may be liberalised further, Edward Zammit Lewis has promised.

The Equality Minister has insisted the government’s overriding policy will remain to “prioritise the individual and not sexual orientation”.

Zammit Lewis weighed in on the controversy that ensued after the Health Ministry confirmed that the restriction on blood donations by gay men will soon be lifted.

Although representing a shift from the complete ban currently in force, the decision dismayed the Malta Gay Rights Movement because of the one-year abstention from sex.

Known as a deferral period, the abstention from sex is as low as three months in the UK and is expected to be reduced to four months in France. In other countries such as Italy and Spain there is no deferral policy for gay men.

Deferral policies are used to reduce the risk of transmitting the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

But Zammit Lewis has now told MaltaToday the proposed policy on blood donation is not cast in stone.

“We have a commitment as a government and I will ensure that we stand by it. I will push for policy decisions that implement our commitment in the best possible way that ensures both the donor’s and patient’s interests are safeguarded effectively and not just on paper,” Zammit Lewis said.

The Equality Minister has held talks with Health Minister Chris Fearne on the matter. “We agreed to look at best medical practices employed overseas. In Canada, there is a three-month deferral policy for men who have sex with men, in France it started with one year and is being reduced to four months. In other countries, certain blood tests are carried out that make it possible to do away with deferral policies. We are looking at all the options.”

The new rules were also criticised by Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer, who insisted decisions should not be taken on “outdated fears, but science”.

Engerer, who acts as the Prime Minister’s special envoy in Brussels, questioned whether it made sense to classify all gay men as unsafe, on the same level as those who use prostitutes or sleep with intravenous drug users – other high-risk categories who cannot donate blood.

“A gay man who uses condoms and only engages in oral sex with a monogamous partner will be immediately excluded from donating blood in Malta. A heterosexual man who does not use contraception and has many partners is not a priori rejected,” Engerer noted.

He called for a blood donation policy that evaluates the individual and not his sexual orientation, describing Malta’s stand as a very conservative stand.

The new policy on blood donation flies in the face of Malta’s otherwise trail-blazing record on gay rights since the Labour Party came to power in 2013. In many aspects, the country has been a leader, making it to the top spot of the Rainbow Index, which evaluates progress on rights for LGBTIQ people, for four years in a row.

When asked whether it made sense for Malta to be following other countries rather than setting its own standards on the matter, Zammit Lewis said there was nothing wrong by copying best practice.

“I have talked to Cyrus Engerer and assured him that I will act as catalyst so that policy in this area will focus on the person not sexual orientation. This is not a question of reluctance but we have to also keep in mind expert medical advice. We will be looking at best practice that safeguards donors and recipients,” Zammit Lewis insisted.

Blood donation policies banning gay men were heavily influenced by the AIDS scourge in the 1980s. At the time, AIDS was widely labelled as a ‘gay disease’ but the mistaken notion has long been dispelled.

However, sex between men is considered to be high risk by the health authorities and blood donation policies have taken time to evolve even as science has provided better blood testing techniques.

Gay rights activists have argued that the ban on homosexual men is discriminatory and rather than targeting sexual orientation, health authorities should focus on risky behaviour, irrespective of who the potential donor is.

In 2016, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that governments were allowed to ban – or restrict – homosexual blood donors if they could prove it was the best way to limit the risk of HIV infection.

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