Thicker than water: challenging Northern Ireland’s blood donation ban

With the knowledge we now have about HIV and AIDS, the fact that all donated blood is screened for communicable diseases, and the high uptake of STI tests among sexually active health service users, a year without sexual activity for MSM is a pointless and alienating gesture, and the lifetime ban in Northern Ireland egregiously so. Danni Glover shares her thoughts.


Northern Ireland gets a bad rap when it comes to queer rights. That’s not to say it doesn’t deserve it; it totally does. It remains the only place in the UK where same-sex couples cannot marry, it didn’t legalise same-sex sexual activity until 1982, and same-sex partners have only been able to adopt children since 2013. So when I say Northern Ireland gets a bad rap when it comes to gay rights, perhaps I mean “Northern Ireland has historically been a bit shit, okay, I mean really shit, when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.” But I’m pleased to see a steadily turning tide, in public opinion if not necessarily in the notoriously slow workings of Stormont. Just look at the thousands who turned out in Belfast, Newry, and Derry to protest the absurd proposed “conscience clause”, which would have entitled businesses to refuse service to queer-identified people if their conscience objected. On the mainland it is unthinkable that anyone would propose such a law, but Northern Irish queer people, and specifically gay men, are fighting against a more contemporary violation of their civil liberties, one which was only overturned in the mainland in 2011; the right to donate blood.

As it stands, men who have sex with men (MSM) are legally allowed to donate blood in the mainland after deferring sex for one year. In Northern Ireland, they are banned indefinitely. This is a hangover of the fear and confusion surrounding the AIDS crisis, when MSM were thought to have greater susceptibility to the disease and their blood was considered riskier than that of other people. With the knowledge we now have about HIV and AIDS, the fact that all donated blood is screened for communicable diseases, and the high uptake of STI tests among sexually active health service users, a year without sexual activity for MSM is a pointless and alienating gesture, and the lifetime ban in Northern Ireland egregiously so. Furthermore, the rule is in practice disregarded. Health services in Northern Ireland regularly access blood stocks from the mainland that don’t adhere to their MSM safety measure, a policy which acknowledges that blood donated by these men is not prohibitively risky in a medical setting. And when blood reserves nationally are in such short supply, would anyone really care where their life-saving transfusion of healthy blood came from?

So when I say Northern Ireland gets a bad rap when it comes to gay rights, perhaps I mean “Northern Ireland has historically been a bit shit, okay, I mean really shit, when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.”

Robert, a gay man who works in health and social care, spoke to me about his disillusionment with the policy. “I find it offensive,” he said. “I know a lot of people who would like to give blood, but don’t because of this. I used to just lie on the form, but the more I think about it, the more I just don’t want to do it at all. I don’t mind telling people I’m gay but I don’t want to be forced to divulge my sexuality for those reasons, I resent being asked, because I know what they are really asking. If the blood is screened anyway, what’s the point?”

He’s right. The ban doesn’t necessarily stop MSM from donating blood, and when it does, it does so in an alienating and offensive way. This law is socially irresponsible and ethically reprehensible. In Northern Ireland, this ban was supported by two consecutive ministers for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Edwin Poots and Jim Wells. Both men have a scientific world viewpoint that starts with Young Earth Creationism (never before have I taken more glee in describing anyone as a dinosaur), and the social opinion that LGBTQ+ people should not be afforded the same rights as other citizens, with Wells stating earlier this year that children brought up by homosexual couples are “far more likely to be abused and neglected.” (Wells resigned after the backlash to these views, citing his wife’s ill health.) Poots’ decision to maintain the ban was ruled to be against the ministerial code and called “irrational and infected with apparent bias” by a judge in 2013, but this ruling is currently being appealed by the ministry.

I don’t mind telling people I’m gay but I don’t want to be forced to divulge my sexuality for those reasons, I resent being asked, because I know what they are really asking. If the blood is screened anyway, what’s the point?

Malachi O’Hara of The Rainbow Project appealed for the minister to be guided by expert opinion. “This is a redundant legacy of the initial HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late eighties. It’s high time that this was reviewed. In September 2011, SABTO (the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues, and Organs) brought forward recommendations that suggested that the MSM lifetime ban should be changed to a one-year deferral. Health ministers in England, Scotland, and Wales all agreed and made the appropriate changes, however the minister for health in Northern Ireland didn’t follow suit. That’s almost four years ago. There has been no evidential increase in the number of additional cases of HIV through blood transfusion or donation, and yet despite that, we take blood from England, Scotland, and Wales which may include the blood of MSM who have been deferred for a year, so the position is untenable for the minister to continue doing this.”

This is not to say that everyone must donate blood. It’s a selfless form of social altruism for which people are rightly thanked and honoured, and it would be ethically irresponsible to demand it of people who were unwilling. But when blood supplies are so desperately needed, can we really afford to be turning people away? When we reject MSM blood donation on the basis of lifestyle risk, are we not in reality rejecting their lifestyles themselves, telling ourselves that they are riskier, more dangerous, less responsible, and cementing ugly stereotypes and sexual shame into the perception of gay men? It is time that Northern Ireland transferred its healthcare policy into the twenty-first century and stopped making their judgements from the viewpoint of the 1980s.

Follow Danni on Twitter (@danvestite)

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