The Canadian Federation of Students tackles a bloody issue

In Canada, if a man has had sex with another man at any point since 1977, he is banned permanently from donating blood. This policy was introduced in 1988 by the Canadian Red Cross, and, amid multiple controversies, remains to this day. While the ban on men who have had sex with men (MSM) has been overturned in the case of bone marrow and organ donation, the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has not given any indication that they will change their stance on blood.

Last May, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) launched a campaign against the policy called “End the Ban.” Michael Olson, representative of the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia (CFS-BC) says the organization has championed the cause because, “[We are] an organization that fights for a lot of social justice, and we consider this to be a social justice issue.”

He explains that the policy “doesn’t take into account actual behavior,” suggesting that instead of being discriminatory against a blanket population, the CBS should modify their screening test to include “specific questions on actual high-risk behavior.” Examples he cites are things like a lack of protection and multiple partners at a time.

He mentions the global trend towards this system, explaining that the motivation is based on the fact that “a move to a behavior based model will increase the amount of donors, and overall the actual blood flow.”

Indeed, many countries, such as Sweden and Australia, have changed their policy on blood donation from a lifetime ban to a deferral period ranging six to twelve months. Many others, including France and Italy, have no deferral period, and instead rely on questions about sexual behavior that leave out the partner’s sex altogether.

When queried, Angela Poon, regional representative of the CBS, explains that the amount of blood being received is not an issue, and that their regular calls to donate are simply a reminder.
Olson also says that the CFS and the LGBT community have tried to work with the CBS, but felt that the CBS had taken this to their advantage, using the negotiation as an excuse to “create literature on why the policy was okay.” He says that after a time “it became very clear that they have no interest in ending the policy, or accepting the research that is out there.”

Kyle Freenman has taken a different kind of action against the policy. A sexually active gay man, Freeman lied multiple times on various blood donor forms. He then sent an anonymous e-mail to the CBS informing them of the fact. The CBS took him to court.

Freeman countersued, claiming that the MSM policy is discriminatory, and that it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights. This did not succeed. On September 9, the court ruled that blood donation is not a right and that the MSM question does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, because the question asks exclusively about sexual behavior. Furthermore, it was ruled that the Charter does not apply to the CBS because it is an independent non-profit organization, and not a branch of government.

Freeman was fined $10,000 dollars for negligence.

The ruling has caused the CFS, amongst other groups, to abandon negotiation with the CBS in a LGBTQQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Questioning) working group. "Students are dismayed by the court's decision and will continue to fight this discriminatory policy based on outdated stereotypes that are no longer justifiable,” Shelley Melanson, CFS deputy chairperson, said in a press release.

Dr. Graham D. Sher, CEO of the CBS, was pleased with the ruling, feeling that the issue of public safety has been upheld. "Canadian Blood Services takes its role in public health very seriously, and we are pleased that this is recognized in this decision," he says in a CBS news release.

At Capilano University, the student population seems relatively unaware of the issue, or of the actions of the CFS. When informed, however, the general agreement was that the policy is unfair.

“I think it’s ridiculous, quite frankly, I think that if someone gets a blood test and it comes out negative, then they should be allowed to donate,” says one student who wishes to remain anonymous.

“There’s no reason for someone to be automatically judged by their past activities if they have no current record of disease,” says another.

Another student interviewed, Ainsleigh Dawiskiba, disagreed with the policy, but thought that the CFS might tackle more important issues, like those to do with the environment.

The outcome of the Freeman case is a setback for the CFS, EGALE Canada, the Canadian AIDS Society, and the queer community, all of whom have been actively campaigning against the MSM policy. However, with new developments in blood screening technology and an international shift towards a more relaxed policy, there is always the possibility that the CBS will rethink the ban.

//Claire Vulliamy

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