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Saskatchewan man calls for changes in organ donations for gay men after late husband’s tissues disqualified

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Saskatchewan man calls for changes in organ donation for gay men
WATCH: Saskatchewan man calls for changes in organ donation for gay men – Dec 4, 2022

Saskatchewan resident Dwayne Belcourt is accusing the Saskatchewan Health Authority of discrimination because he says his late husband’s tissues were disqualified due to his same-sex relationship.

On Aug. 30, Belcourt’s husband Merril Donkin died from stage four liver cancer.

On the morning of his death, Belcourt said he received a call from the Saskatchewan Health Authority regarding tissue donations and was first told Donkin was a great candidate to be a tissue donor.

An hour later, Belcourt said SHA called again.

“They basically asked me if [Donkin] had intimate relations with a man in the last five years,” Belcourt explained.
Merrill Donkin. Courtesy: Dwayne Belcourt

Belcourt and Donkin got married in April 2022, but had been dating for over 20 years prior to their marriage. After confirming Donkin’s sexual history, Belcourt said he was upset to hear how the phone call had to end.

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“After she confirmed that he had a sexual relationship with a man in the four or five years, that disqualified him. All his tissues were disqualified,” Belcourt recounted.

“The fact that they called me the day of my husband’s death. To add that on top of that, I was quite upset,” Belcourt added.

Belcourt believes the donor policy is bizarre given the recent blood-ban changes for gay men.

“They’re advertising that we can give our blood, but they won’t take anything else,” he said.

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He is asking health officials to re-consider their rules for organ and tissue donations.

Belcourt says the policy is discriminatory, especially if the SHA had confirmed in their initial phone call that Donkin was a viable donor.

“You’re throwing away good, viable tissue or whatever you want to take from him because he’s a gay man and had sex with the man. And I asked ‘Did you ask that question for heterosexuals?’ And the answer was, ‘no.'”

“They’re constantly complaining when they’re low on stuff: low on blood, Low on tissue, please go out and donate, and all sign up, and all this stuff. Right. Well, I find that kind of a contradictory advertisement, being that they’re throwing away good, good tissues or blood because we’re gay or we’ve had sex with a man,” Belcourt said.

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Health Canada has a guidance document that lists reasons that may be used to determine a deceased donor’s risk of having a transmissible disease.

Under the “Deceased Donors” section, an example that may be associated with the presence of a transmissible disease includes the following bullet point: “for a male donor, physical evidence of anal intercourse including perianal condyloma.”

Global News reached out to Health Canada on the matter.

In a statement, it said in part “These guidance documents are administrative instruments not having force of law and, as such, allow for flexibility in approach.”

“In the case of diseased donors, the mandatory physical examination includes a recent antemortem or postmortem physical examination, a directed physical examination and may include a limited autopsy, if performed. The directed examination should include any of the applicable items included below that would assist in determining whether there is evidence of high-risk behaviour,” the statement read.

Organ and tissue donations are under provincial jurisdiction and are overseen by the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

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The SHA began its statement in consultation with Dr. Alastair Wall, medical director and co-lead of the Saskatchewan Organ Donation Program (SODP), saying it would never deter organ donations based on sexual orientation for non-ocular (or life-saving) organ donations.

However, it said ocular organ donations are considered non-life-saving transplants and have more strict screening criteria that may defer a donation based on medical and/or social history.

“They will be subject to individual assessments by virtue of the organ they are donating, which may entail more detailed screening. Risk assessments are then based on the data points within the clinical profile of the donor and the recipient,” the statement read in part.

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While the SODP acknowledges that Health Canada is reviewing these guidelines, it said it is following federal recommendations.

“The transplant program will continue to base its screening protocols on current federal guidelines. Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services screening guidelines and criteria include questions regarding whether the donor is a man who has had sex with other men,” the statement said.

The statement included a message from Dr. Vikas Sharma, medical director for the Saskatchewan Organ Donation Program.

“It’s not about discrimination, and that is not the intent of the current screening standards,” Dr. Sharma said.

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“The ability to more accurately, and quickly test donor tissue for disease before transplant is currently limited, making screening a vital component for patient safety under difficult and time sensitive circumstances. Screening for ocular transplant focuses on mitigating repercussions of a chronic disease being passed to a recipient. The current guidelines are in place based on research and clinical evidence. As research continues to evolve and national standards are adapted, SODP screening practices will also evolve to stay in alignment,” Dr. Sharma said.

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For Belcourt, he wants to see change.

“I really feel that the SHA really needs to step their game up. I really feel that they’ve failed in more ways than one, not just my husband,” Belcourt said.

Belcourt said an equitable approach to the screening process is needed.

He is considering taking legal action after seeking advice from a lawyer.

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