Health Minister Michelle O’Neill last night defended new rules which forbid all sexually active gay men from donating blood in Northern Ireland.
Her decision to lift a controversial lifetime ban on gay men donating blood came after a long campaign by gay rights activists and a series of court battles over the contentious prohibition.
It has now been replaced in Northern Ireland with rules which mean no gay man can donate blood unless he has been celibate for 12 months, a position adopted by the rest of the UK in 2011.
Last night Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty, Sinn Fein and the SDLP all welcomed the end of the total ban – but slammed the new ‘celibacy’ rule as discriminatory.
The DUP – whose Health Minister Edwin Poots previously opposed the changes – did not challenge the call for further relaxation of the rules last night.
But Rev David McIlveen of the Free Presbyterian Church insisted no gay men should be donating any blood until there is an international consensus on safe practice.
Mr O’Doherty said: “Some media outlets seem to be expecting crowds of gay and bisexual men to line up to donate blood tomorrow.
“This is not going to happen. While we were hugely thankful to Health Minister Michelle O’Neill for abandoning the illogical approach to blood donations from her predecessors and bringing Northern Ireland into line with the other regions of the UK, we have always said that replacing a lifetime ban with a ban on those who have not had sex within the past 12 months was unlikely to lead to any substantial numbers of gay and bisexual men donating blood because many of them, like the rest of the population, have had sex at least once this year.”
Mr O’Doherty added: “Removing the lifetime ban was the first step in moving towards a blood donation system which is based on the risk posed by potential donors, and not their sexual orientation, but there are still irrational barriers placed in the way of gay and bisexual men when they want to donate blood.
“There are still different criteria for gay and bisexual men than there are for their heterosexual counterparts which we hope will be addressed when SABTO [the government blood safety group] reports later this year.
“There must be a recognition that two men in a monogamous relationship pose zero risk to the blood supply. They cannot magically create HIV between them.
“And yet as long as they have sex they will never be allowed to donate blood. This is not science, it is stigma.”
In a statement responding to the Rainbow Project, Ms O’Neill said: “As Health Minister my first responsibility in this matter is patient safety. Surveillance data from England, Scotland and Wales and survey evidence from across Britain and the north of Ireland have provided assurance that the risk is lower with a one-year deferral.
“My decision is based on the evidence regarding the safety of donated blood. My department will continue to be guided by the scientific and medical evidence as provided by SABTO.”
Sinn Fein equality spokesman Sean Lynch MLA welcomed the lifting of the lifetime ban implemented by his party colleague, Ms O’Neill - but acknowledged that the new rules were also discriminatory.
“The new regulations come into force today and represent another important step forward for equality,” he said.
He added: “This move by the health minister shows Sinn Fein’s commitment to equality and we will continue to campaign for the removal of the discriminations and inequalities faced by the LGBT+ community.”
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan MLA also agreed that the new rules are still discriminatory.
“The removal of the lifetime ban is a victory for common sense but Minister O’Neill must now go further in the fight for equality,” he said.
“As medical science continues to advance, we are becoming much better at detecting HIV and other blood-borne diseases. The Department for Health in England is already reviewing the 12-month deferral period and this is certainly something that should be considered here.”
Last night the DUP offered no objection to the law change – or the fresh demands by the Rainbow Project.
A DUP spokesman said: “The priority for everyone must be the safety of blood given to patients. Our position has been guided by patient safety and the best available scientific evidence.”
But Rev David McIlveen, of the Free Presbyterian Church, said Germany and Finland still maintain a permanent ban on blood from gay men.
“When there is international confidence and assurance that it is safe for gay men to donate blood, only then should we consider it safe,” he said.
Ulster Unionist health spokesperson, Jo-Anne Dobson MLA, said: “It’s a common sense decision based on medical evidence but unfortunately common sense is a rare commodity when it comes to the Northern Ireland Executive.
“This should have been done a long time ago to bring us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.”
A spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: “If the scientific and medical evidence suggests that there is no increase in risk to patient safety from having the lifetime ban lifted, then its removal appears to be entirely appropriate.”