Irish Lifetime Ban On Blood Donation Lifted For Gay Men

Tomas Heneghan, the man who fought for the Irish Lifetime ban on blood donation for gay men to be lifted
Image Source: Tomas Heneghan

Activist Tomás Heneghan gives blood today as first open MSM to do so in over thirty years


Today the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) has officially lifted its lifetime ban on the donation of blood by men who have sex with men (MSM). The lifetime ban has been replaced with a one year deferral period for MSM.

Tomás Heneghan (pictured), the activist who took the IBTS to court last year before Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that the lifetime ban would be lifted, spoke about the new blood donation policy.

Heneghan said that the change in policy “has certainly not gone far enough” and that the Minister for Health should be “guided by science, rather than outside and unscientific biases” when considering the policy.

Heneghan withdrew his case from court after the decision to reduce the lifetime blood ban for MSM to a one year blood ban, based on the last time they had sex with another man.

“I am here today to give my 11th blood donation,” Heneghan said. “I am here as the first open man who has had sex with another man to donate blood in the Republic of Ireland in over 30 years. I am here after fighting tooth and nail to push the Irish state on this important change.

“Blood donation is about giving an extraordinary gift to a stranger. A middle-aged shop worker, a schoolchild, a newborn baby, a pregnant mother of two. Blood donations save lives and secure the health of thousands each year in this country. It may feel like the smallest of acts but it’s an act which can change the lives of so many for the better,” he said.

“I’ve been an active donor since I was 18 and never imagined I would abruptly stop, especially when my blood was not only healthy and safe, but also in such consistently high demand from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.”

Twenty-five year old Heneghan revealed that he elected to remain celibate since the onset of his court case.

“I abstained from sex for twenty-three months,” he explained. The Limerick Leader reports that the young LGBT activist vowed to continue his abstinence until the blood donation policy for gay and bi men had been changed.


Failed By Officials

Heneghan spoke about the failure of the Irish government to facilitate gay men in performing their civic duty by donating blood.

“Unfortunately, a failure at the higher levels of the service to adequately review or update policies down through the years meant for the past number of years I’ve been unable to donate blood in this country. At least 5.64 litres of perfectly healthy, much-needed blood has been allowed to be lost,” Heneghan said.

“In 2014 I wrote to the blood service, TDs, senators, ministers, the Minister for Health of the day, James Reilly, and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

“Some could do nothing, while many, including the Taoiseach and former Health Minister Reilly, saw no reason to push for a change in policies, choosing instead to defend the lifetime ban on men who have sex with men, using statistics on HIV. In a report by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to the Minister for Health last May, the service said: “It cannot be shown that the lifelong ban was ever necessary for prevention of HIV transmission by blood transfusion.”

“I found myself in the High Court as a 23-year-old, fighting the state simply to be able to perform my civic duty and engage in this extremely important act to help improve and save lives.”

Heneghan went on to thank those who helped him precipitate change for MSM looking to donate blood.

“I would offer my most heartfelt and sincere gratitude to several individuals and groups for working so hard with me to achieve this historic change. These include my solicitors, Gareth Noble and Colin Lenihan, who willingly took on my case when no one else seemed willing to, my barristers, William McLoughlin and Michael Lynn and the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland, without which I may never have found the full legal representation I needed to see today’s important policy change come about.”


Scientific Evidence

Heneghan takes exception to the fact that a one year deferral period is still required for MSM.

However, minutes from a meeting of the IBTS and the Medical Advisory Committee indicated that some believed that a five year deferral period instead of a one year deferral period would be necessary to protect from the threat of emerging infections.

“Although that action has seen the back of the lifetime ban on donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), the change has certainly not gone far enough, or towards the most scientific evidence available.

“I believe it is now past time that the Minister for Health take action and review the operations of the IBTS and I call on him to initiate an independent and detailed review of the policies, activities and management of the service, including communication methods with donors, record management and policy formation. A hands-off approach by health ministers, as has been evident to date, has not worked and will continue to fail both blood donation recipients, as well as donors themselves,” he said.

“I also call on the Minister, as a matter of urgency and under the most scientific evidence, to remove the unnecessary, discriminatory and disproportionate 12 month deferral on men who have had sex with men and follow international practice of individual assessment of blood donors.

“Alternatively, the only other scientific option would be to implement a donation ban on any donor who has had sex in the previous 3 months. This is due to a ‘window period’ in which the IBTS argues HIV can be undetectable through current testing methods.


3 Month Deferral For All

Heneghan went on to suggest that the deferral period for gay men might be reduced to a 3 month deferral period from their last sexual encounter and extended to all blood donors, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“The Minister has a responsibility to ensure the recipients of blood transfusions in Ireland are not being put at unnecessary risk.

“The Minister must be guided by science, rather than outside and unscientific biases, and should now move, without further delay, to the removal of the disproportionate and unscientific ban on men who have sex with men and follow international practice of individual assessment of donors, or implement a 3 month deferral policy on all donors from the point of their last engagement in sexual intercourse,” Heneghan said.

“I will continue to be an active blood donor and will continue to push and fight for further change until such point as the policies for blood donation in Ireland reflect the most scientific and rational evidence.”

Minister Harris spoke about the safeguards that are in place to “protect both donors and recipients of blood” saying that the IBTS will keep abreast of scientific evidence when considering their policies on deferral.

“The IBTS provides a safe, reliable and robust blood service to the Irish health system and has the necessary programmes and procedures in place to protect both donors and recipients of blood and blood products,” Harris said.

“Furthermore, the IBTS will continue to keep all deferral policies under active review in the light of scientific evidence, emerging infections and international experience.”

(Image: Twitter)

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