Tuesday, September 21, 2010

End the Ban: 5 reasons to oppose the Canadian Blood Services' ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men

An Ontario Superior judge recently dismissed a constitutional challenge of the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) ban on donations from men who had sex with men. Kyle Freeman had challenged the ban by openly lying about his sexual history, and when he was sued he counter-sued arguing his Charter rights had been violated. The court sided with CBS and ordered Freeman to pay $10,000 for filling false papers. The media have largely defended the court and the ban on the grounds that safety trumps equality, and that gay men are a risk for HIV.

Here are 5 reasons to oppose the ban:

1) The ban perpetuates a long history of homophobia
The National Post claims that “the CBS’s ban on donations from gay males is not in any way an issue of homophobia, it’s one of differing medical opinions”, implying that medical opinions are immune from homophobia. There’s a long history to the contrary. Homosexuality went from being a crime to a pathology, initially psychiatric and then a terminal illness. The gay liberation movement forced the removal of homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorder, only to find themselves re-pathologized. When the first few people infected happened to be gay men, the medical establishment immediately labeled the new disease Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). When it quickly became obvious that other people could become infected, the name was changed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), but it was  blamed on “high-risk groups” known as the “four-Hs” (homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians) who were considered inherently dangerous, and blood donations from all these groups were banned. This homophobia has not ended. The National Post defended the CBS by claiming: “In choosing to continue to refuse donations from gay men, CBS is erring on the side of caution to protect our blood supply, a vital national medical resource. Any attempts to rush CBS into changing their medically defensible polices in the name of political correctness must be resisted.”[2] Run and hide, the gays are coming for our blood supply! Substitute “muslim” for “gay” for and “security” for “blood supply”, and you get the typical islamophobic argument for racial profiling.

2) The ban inappropriately focuses on demographics instead of behaviours
The homophobic sleight-of-hand that substitutes demographics for behaviours has been so ingrained that Jeffrey Simpson can pronounce in the Globe&Mail that “gay men cannot overcome the medical facts of being more susceptible to HIV”. Well, Dr. Simpson, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Mark Wainberg, leading Canadians AIDS researcher, past president of the Canadian AIDS society and co-chair of the 2006 International AIDS Conference. Wainberg has been challenging the archaic notion of “risk groups” that have allowed homophobia to linger so long in the medical community. He recently pointed out the logical conclusion of the CBS ban: “It’s okay for a 19-year-old University of Toronto student to go out and have sex 50 times over the course of a year with a whole bunch of women that he doesn’t know, including prostitutes, that’s fine. But a gay man who has been totally monogamous for 15 years? No, that’s not okay.”

3) The ban ignores a generation of advances in AIDS research
Not only does the ban misdirect attention to sexual orientation and not sexual behaviour, but it’s become moot with the development of highly accurate HIV testing. As Wainberg pointed out, “the precautionary principle is implemented in situations in which public health is in danger, and no conclusive scientific information is available.” But that is not the case: after a generation of AIDS research we know the virus that causes it and can accurately test for it in our blood supply. According to another leading Canadian AIDS researcher, Dr. Gilmore: “Today’s technologies make it almost impossible for HIV to slip through”.

4) The ban threatens the abundance of our blood supply
So what’s the result of such an unscientific policy? It not only to discriminates against gay men and perpetuates the notion that they are inherently diseased, but also exacerbates the blood supply. As Wainberg wrote, “We clearly have a situation in which there are chronic blood shortages and we also have a situation in which gay men are totally discriminated against”. Banning donations from healthy donors whose blood will be screened does not strengthen our blood supply, it undermines it.

5) Other useless bans have been dropped
When presented with Wainberg’s writing, CBS spokesperson stated that “we don’t think Canadians want to be guinea pigs”, as if getting an accurately screened transfusion from a healthy and generous blood donor who also happened at one time since 1977 to have had one sexual encounter with another male is akin to human experimentation. As well as being inflammatory, this statement is highly misleading about the dynamics of bans. The book When Germs Travel includes a chapter on the Haitian community’s inspiring campaign to remove the ban from their blood, which was successful. As Gilmore pointed out, “Other jurisdictions, like Australia, have already replaced the lifetime ban with more balanced and realistic policies. And I think it’s time that Canada and the U.S. did the same.”

When Stephen Harper boycotted the 2006 International AIDS Conference, Wainberg said he was “on the wrong side of history”. The CBS ban, and the court that upheld it, are on that same wrong side. But the same mobilizations that ended the ban on blood donations from Haitians can reverse the longstanding homophobic, unscientific, and harmful ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with men.

To read more about AIDS politics and activism, check out Brett Stockdrill's Activism against AIDS: at the intersection of sexuality, race, gender and class, Paul Farmer's Women, poverty, and AIDS: sex, drugs, and structural violence, and Steven Epstein's Impure science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge. And go here for more information of the Canadian Federation of Student’s campaign against the ban.

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