The start of a typical week at university: too much work, not enough sleep and far too much caffeine. Walking through campus on a surprisingly warm morning in March I notice signs for a blood drive taking place over the next few days. What you might not know, is that in this little corner of the United Kingdom, it is still illegal to donate blood if you are gay or bisexual.
It seems the law is only discriminatory to gay males as it makes no mention of lesbian sex. Perhaps the health minister responsible for the ban is fond of that particular facet of homosexuality.
Myself, along with many others in Northern Ireland are faced with a dilemma: lie and donate some potentially life saving blood. Or tell the truth and go home. The logic? That it will prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. However, this is 2014 not 1974. HIV is no longer the deadly plague it once was in the western world and donated blood can be (and is) very easily, quickly and cheaply screened for all manner of diseases and abnormalities before it will be used for transfusion.
In 2011, the rest of the UK allowed blood donations from gay men providing they were abstinent (from sex) for one year. Whilst still discriminatory, it was progress for equality and more importantly, opened the door for thousands of willing donors, however, the ban remained in Northern Ireland due to the personal religious bias of NI Health Minister Edwin Poots. But, (and this is the really stupid part) health trusts throughout the United Kingdom routinely share stockpiles of blood to ensure proper distribution and that blood for transfusion goes where it’s most needed. Simply put, blood from a perfectly healthy gay male in Liverpool, has most likely already saved the life of a hospital patient in Belfast, making the donation ban completely illogical and downright idiotic.
I am not alone in my opinion. In October of last year, Mr. Justice Treacy of the High Court in Belfast ruled that the health minister did not have the authority to maintain the ban, that he displays bias going beyond religious belief and into prejudice and finally, that the ban is simply “irrational” given the sharing of supplies between NI and the mainland. The ban however remains and the minister has been very active in his efforts to dodge the issue.
Whilst blood donation is important for the health and well-being of us all, if we are ever in the unfortunate position of requiring a transfusion, this ban is damaging in a more profound way. Young gay people are being told (however subliminally), “no, we do not want your help”. That that your blood is “diseased; wrong”. When added to the daily discrimination already faced by many young gay people and the fact that it comes from their own government, it is hardly surprising that 52% of LGBT youth have received medical treatment for depression (BBC) and that Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the British isles (ONS), a significant portion of which being committed by LGBT teens.
Not only would lifting this ban be right and just in the eyes of the law, advancing equality but it would improve supplies of blood for transfusion and prevent a damaging psychological message; both of which will save lives. What do you think?