A gay Toronto man remained celibate for 1 year to meet controversial blood donation rules
Canadian Blood Services, Health Canada reviewing policy limiting donations from gay men
A 28-year-old Toronto man has gone more than a year without having sex — not for health or religious reasons, but because he wants to donate blood.
He hasn't been allowed to for years.
That's because the man is gay, something he has not yet disclosed to all those in his life. CBC News has agreed not to use his name, and will instead identify him as Charles Richard.
Health Canada prohibits men who have sex with men from donating blood for a year following certain types of intimacy. The policy has evolved from an initial blanket ban on gay donors to a five-year period of celibacy in 2013. That was changed to one year last August.
But politicians, LGBT rights advocates and health-care researchers continue to question the current policy, given both the precision of today's blood-screening techniques — and the fact that Canadian Blood Services can't actually police who people choose to sleep with.
30 donations in a lifetime
Richard says he first donated his blood 11 years ago, a few days after he was old enough to do so for the first time. There's no particular reason for his desire to do so, except a feeling of duty.
Richard says he donated regularly — almost 30 times — until he lost his virginity. He'd even asked his then-partner if they could wait a little longer, because he believed he'd never be able to donate again.
"After I'd had sex for the first time, they kept calling me saying, 'Do you want to give, do you want to give, do you want to give?'" he said of Canadian Blood Services. "And I eventually said, 'I can't, I've had sex with another man.'"
'I'm in a relationship now and it was difficult to be saying to my partner, 'We can't be doing X, Y and Z, because I want to give blood again.'"- Charles Richard
Richard found himself single last spring, when Health Canada announced it would soon be reducing the deferral period to give blood. He decided to stay celibate for a few more months.
He donated in December 2016 and again in April — but he's since fallen for someone.
"I'm in a relationship now and it was difficult to be saying to my partner, 'We can't be doing X, Y and Z, because I want to give blood again. And I think we're getting to a point where it's just, it's not fair to him."
That a man in a long-term, monogamous sexual relationship cannot donate blood is both prejudiced and scientifically unsound, said Michael Bach, the founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.
"It's a discriminatory policy based on extremely outdated science," Bach said.
But he's hopeful that research being conducted and collected by both Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Quebec will shift the focus to sexual behaviour rather sexual orientation.
The federal government provided $3 million to study the issue of donations from men who have sex with men, which contributed to a national conference held this past January. The lion's share, however, will soon be given out in research grants to look at the risks and benefits of lowering the deferral period, according to Health Canada.
"I don't think it's reasonable to ask people to abstain from sex for a year in order to give blood," Bach said. "It's the responsibility of the … blood product providers to remove the barriers to increase their supply. And I think there is a genuine interest in doing that now."
Blood shortage could see elective surgeries postponed
Canadian Blood Services has an obvious reason to invest in this research: its current reserve is sitting at 14,000 units.
The national blood bank aims for a minimum of between 20,000 and 25,000 units, according to Michael Betel, the director of donor relations.
Hospitals across the country might have to postpone elective surgeries because of the shortage.
It's unclear, however, whether lowering the so-called deferral period for men who have sex with men to one year has increased the number of available donors.
- Canadian Blood Services pleading for donors as blood shortage reaches 'critical' level
Betel said Canadian Blood Services hasn't tracked whether that pool of candidates has changed since last August.
"But we want to have more people be able to donate so we have to continue to do evidence-based research and work with Health Canada."
While most other countries, including the United States and England, have similar one-year donation bans for men who have sex with men, both Spain and Italy have opened up banks to those donors.
Improved HIV testing
Isaac Bogoch, an infection diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, argued that Canada should follow suit.
"The diagnostics for HIV are excellent," he said. "And a lot better now than they were five and 10 years ago. The ability for the blood supply to detect HIV is far greater."
Every sample also gets tested by the blood bank — and a positive result for HIV/AIDS can be detected almost instantly, Bogoch said.
- Gay men abstinent for a year cleared by Health Canada to donate blood
- Health committee to study blood donor rules for men who've had sex with men
And unless there's a policy change soon, Richard isn't sure how much longer he'll be in the market to be a donor.
"I do wish that I could both give blood and not feel like I'm missing out on something with somebody I care about."
With files from Philippe de Montigny