Canadian Blood Services (CBS) says it intends to submit a request to Health Canada by the end of 2021 recommending its current blood deferral policy for men who have sex with men (MSM) be changed to a sexual behaviours-based screening model for all donors.
The move, if approved, would effectively end what advocates have called a “discriminatory” ban on gay, bisexual and other MSM from donating blood.
“We intend to make a submission recommending this change to Health Canada, our regulator, by the end of 2021,” CBS spokesperson Catherine Lewis told Global News Friday.
Prior to 2013, gay, bisexual and other MSM were banned from ever donating blood, due to the supposed risk of spreading HIV. Health Canada then approved a change limiting donation to a five-year deferral period, provided that potential donors stayed abstinent during that time.
The deferral period was decreased to one year in 2016, and then to three months in 2019.
Under the proposed screening model, instead of donors being asked about whether they had been abstinent, the organization would instead ask all donors questions regarding their sexual behaviours.
In a statement to Global News, Health Canada said it “remains open” to reviewing any submissions from CBS or Héma-Quebec, that province’s blood operator, in support of changing the MSM policy. A spokesperson said that once a submission is received, it would be reviewed following “the normal processes for blood submissions,” which have a 90-day review target. It added that the submission must include scientific data to support the safety of the proposed change.
The agency added while it would be responsible for approving the policy change, it would be CBS’ responsibility for implementing the changes to its donor screening criteria.
“Health Canada shares CBS and Héma-Québec’s (HQ) goal of further reducing and, ultimately, eliminating any deferral period provided that submissions are received from the blood operators that are supported by scientific evidence,” wrote Andre Gagnon, media relations advisor for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Canadian Blood Services CEO Graham Sher spoke about the goal to change the policy in a board meeting that was open to the public Friday. The organization said it was the first time it had publicly stated the intent to pursue making a submission this year for the change. CBS’ website was also updated Friday to provide information both on the potential changes to the policy and what their next steps were.
The federal Liberal government started facing heavy criticism shortly after taking office in 2015 for not ending the ban once they were elected — something they had promised to do in both the 2015 and 2019 election campaigns.
As recent as this week, MPs of opposition parties have called for the ban to be lifted completely. On Monday, the Conservative Party of Canada released a video calling on the Liberals to end the policy, which they said is “outdated, stigmatizing and can be easily fixed.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also questioned the deferral policy in the House of Commons last month, saying it “makes absolutely no sense and has no basis in science” and inquired why the government was defending the ban in court.
In response, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government shared concerns about the policy, but that they respected the “independence of Canadian institutions, especially when it comes to medical and scientific issues.”
Singh was referring to a recent federal court case in which Attorney General David Lametti, on behalf of Health Canada, had requested a judicial review into a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Commission to defer a complaint regarding the policy to the Human Rights Tribunal.
Last Friday, federal court justice Richard Southcott dismissed the application by the government.
“I believe this is an important ruling by the federal court,” Christopher Karas, who made the initial complaint to the commission, told Global News on Thursday.
“But I feel it has come far too late and I think that we still haven’t seen the elimination of this policy. We’re still waiting to see that occur.”
Karas, who is gay, had alleged Health Canada had discriminated against him on the basis of sexual orientation by denying him the ability to donate blood that same year.
The government has argued Health Canada has no power to change the donor criteria established by CBS and Héma-Quebec, but as the agency is CBS’ regulator, it must approve any changes to screening criteria — including the deferral policy regarding MSM.
It was not known as of Friday whether an appeal will be filed by the government in Karas’ case.
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Despite the court case, there have still been efforts to move towards a change, with Health Canada having funded more than a dozen independent research projects investigating various aspects of blood and plasma donors’ eligibility criteria and screen process.
According to CBS’ website, several of the projects have been completed with others to see completion in the coming months and will “help inform our next submission … to further evolve blood donor eligibility criteria.”
While the submission for a change — which CBS says will be not only for blood but “all collection types” — will not take place until later this year, the organization did make a submission to Health Canada last month to move to establish an alternative screening process for plasma and is waiting for approval.
On Monday, the United Kingdom implemented a behaviours-based policy that will allow gay, bisexual and MSM to be able to donate blood, plasma and platelets without a deferral period.
Instead, the policy in the U.K. will see all donors, regardless of sexual orientation, be asked if they had sex and, if so, about recent sexual behaviours. People who have had the same sexual partner for at least three months will be able to donate, no matter their orientation.
The new policy applies in England, Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland delaying implementation until September.