The DUP health minister has pledged to be guided by science when it comes to a re-think of the ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland, as he launched a review which could lead to the law being relaxed.
Simon Hamilton’s call for health experts to take a fresh look into the matter was yesterday described as a “U-turn” by the UUP and as a “climbdown” by gay campaign group the Rainbow Project, while the Alliance Party dubbed it “a step towards full equality” for homosexuals.
The lifetime ban on donations from men who have sex with other men was eased in Great Britain in 2011.
However, two previous DUP health ministers – Edwin Poots and Jim Wells – opted to maintain it in Northern Ireland, although a judge described Mr Poots’ decision to do so as “irrational”.
Yesterday the current health minister said that all decisions on the matter had been taken with the public’s best interests at heart.
The Court of Appeal is currently considering if blood donation is a devolved matter, or if responsibility lies with UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and Mr Hamilton said the issue should be resolved “promptly” after the judges make their ruling.
In response to a written question, published yesterday, the DUP MLA said he had written to Mr Hunt suggesting that The Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) provide him with a new report.
Mr Hamilton has asked the SaBTO committee to examine the current level of risk associated with a permanent deferral (in other words, the current lifetime ban on giving blood).
It will also look into a five-year deferral (that is, permitting donations five years after the donor last had sex with another man), as well as a one-year deferral.
The rest of the UK now operates a one-year deferral.
Mr Hamilton said the review will “permit consideration of up-to-date expert advice”.
He said: “If such a piece of work affirms emerging evidence that blood safety has been increased in Great Britain, it would be my view that such evidence should be followed and that Northern Ireland should adopt the same policy on blood donations from MSM (men who have had sex with men) as the rest of the UK.”
In 2013, a judge said Northern Ireland’s former health minister Mr Poots did not have the power to keep an “irrational” lifetime ban in Northern Ireland.
The High Court also found that Mr Poots had breached the ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Stormont Executive.
The ex-minister maintained the ban in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.
The Rainbow Project’s John O’Doherty said his group welcomes the news that the minister “is breaking from his predecessors and accepting that the criteria for blood donations should be made on medical evidence and not personal opinion”.
Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane branded the lifetime deferral “nonsensical”, “unfair”, and “discriminatory”.
Alliance health spokesman Kieran McCarthy said he was delighted that an end may be in sight for the “ridiculous ban” which he claimed was down to “the DUP’s personal prejudices”.
He added: “It also throws major scorn on Mr Hamilton’s predecessor Edwin Poots, who had a judge describe his decision to keep the ban as irrational.”
UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson noted that it is four years since the ban was lifted in the rest of the UK, adding that “not for the first time however Northern Ireland was left trailing behind”.
She added: “When the demand for blood is often higher than the availability of stocks it meant that the continuation of the ban here was ridiculous, given local hospitals receive blood donations from Great Britain where no such life-time ban on gay men exists.
“I trust that when Simon Hamilton now receives the medical evidence he is waiting for, which will again inevitably state that the ban is not necessary, he will ensure the policy is adopted by all members of the DUP – including those who have acted so irrationally in the past.”