The passage of the marriage equality referendum on the 22nd of May 2015 marked a seismic shift in Irish society.
It showed us and the world how far we had come as a people- what an accepting and open society we have created. It showed that once again, Ireland has transformed hugely from a once closed, backward and protectionist economy and people, to a modern liberal and open society.
But just allowing same sex couples to marry, does not undo the plethora of divisive and discriminatory structures that still exist within our legal system. One prime example of this is the blatantly homophobic and backward criteria that must be met for a sexually active gay or bisexual man to donate blood in this country.
In January 2017, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service lifted its lifelong ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood. The deferral time period was reduced to one year following the donor’s last sexual encounter with a man. The same criteria do not apply to heterosexual blood donors. Whereas the removal of the life ban was a positive step, it was not based on the best available scientific advice, and harped back to time of severe homophobia, and an unjustified fear of gay men.
It is important to note that according to the best available scientific evidence and advances in testing technology, the current twelve-month deferral period imposed on gay and bisexual men exceeds what is required to maintain the safety of the blood supply.
As we speak, there are nine EU member states who imposed no deferral period, namely- Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Poland and the United Kingdom. These countries have decided that science must be the driving force in securing and protecting their blood donation infrastructure- they do not divide their society into subgroups, and blatantly discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. When it comes to blood donation, they treat all of their citizens as equals.
In June of last year, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service imported a large consignment of blood from the UK for the first time since the 1990’s, meaning that gay and bisexual men in the UK can donate blood to Irish citizens, but Irish men can’t. This is a clear inequality and needs to be called out.
It is not acceptable that we are discriminating against one section of society in Ireland, and at the same time accepting blood from the same community in the UK.
Recently, I had the honour of meeting one of the most inspirational blood donation activist we have in this country, Tomás Heneghan. Tomás has sacrificed an incredible amount to ensure that he, as a gay man, can give back, and can give blood. Tomás travels regularly to the UK, where they do not profile donors based on their sexuality. Aside from travelling internationally at huge expense in order to donate blood, he has also sacrificed relationships in order to satisfy the one-year deferral policy in Ireland- and his story proves how outrageous our system is. Despite the imposition of the 12-month deferral in Ireland, Tomás’ blood could still have ended up in an Irish hospital due to the recent importation of a blood consignment from the UK. Clearly the Irish Blood Transfusion Service have serious questions to answer.
We need to treat all citizens equally, and we need to be consistent in our messaging. If it is safe for a gay or bisexual man in the UK to donate blood to Irish citizens, then it is safe for an Irish man to donate blood in Ireland.
We were the first country to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote in 2015, and we have been heralded internationally as a leader in the area ever since, but we still have much work to do. It is time for us to come together once again and it is time for us to demand that this draconian ban be lifted.
I have been campaigning actively to have this blatant discrimination reversed, and I am pleased that Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly (FF) has relented and listened to call from within our party from rank-and-file members such as myself and from national figures such as Senator Fiona O’Loughlin (FF) to implement an individual risk assessment model.
From March, men who have sex with men will be allowed to give blood four months after their last sexual contact with a man, down from the current one-year deferral time. This is an interim measure, and the goal is for a fairer individual risk assessment to be adopted. The IBTS are set to introduce new technology to replace the existing paper health and lifestyle questionnaire with an electronic questionnaire known as the self-assessment health history. Ultimately ending the discriminatory deferral period.
*David Griffin is a native of Newmarket-on-Fergus and is currently working as a parliamentary assistant to Senator Fiona O’Loughlin (FF).