MPs consider reviewing restrictions on male blood donors who've had sex with men

MPs on the House of Commons health committee will have to wait until at least Monday to vote on a proposal to study Canada's restrictions on male blood donors who have had sex with other men in light of the latest scientific evidence.

Conservative MP Len Webber, an organ donation advocate, planned motion before Orlando shooting

MPs on the House of Commons health committee are expected to vote Monday whether to study changing to restrictions placed on donation of blood by men who have had sex with men. Health Canada is also considering proposals from Canada's blood operators. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

MPs on the House of Commons health committee will have to wait until at least Monday to vote on a proposal to study Canada's restrictions on male blood donors who have had sex with other men in light of the latest scientific evidence.

In Canada, as in the United States, men who have had sex with men (MSM) face restrictions on giving blood — specifically, a five-year waiting period before they are accepted as blood donors.

The issue came to the fore in the U.S. following last weekend's attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, when members of the gay community there noted the restrictions meant they couldn't give blood to help people injured in the attack, which left 49 club-goers dead.

Alberta Conservative MP Len Webber started work on a motion for a study of the restrictions in Canada before last weekend's attack. On Wednesday, a vote on the matter was delayed by other committee business until time ran out. Webber's office told CBC News he hoped it would come to a vote on Monday.

In March, Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec, which manages blood donations in that province, submitted a proposal to Health Canada to reduce the blood donation ineligibility period for these men from five years to one year.

The five-year period was implemented in 2010, when an earlier lifetime ban was lifted based on the scientific evidence available at the time.

A decision on the lowering of the deferral period to one year is expected this summer. Final decisions on how to screen donors and ensure the integrity of the blood supply rest with the agencies.

But during the last election, Liberals pledged to go farther than that, ending the restrictions altogether because they are unfair to those whose sexual activities have been safe or monogamous.

"A Liberal government will work with Health Canada, (Canadian Blood Services), and HM-QC to end this stigmatizing donor-screening policy and adopt one that is non-discriminatory and based on science," the Liberal platform said online.

'Discriminatory policy'

Webber's motion calls on the committee to "undertake an immediate study of the current restrictions imposed on men who have sex with men (MSM) when it comes to the donation of blood to determine if the current five-year ban is scientifically supported, or to determine if this restriction can either be reduced or eliminated while maintaining a safe blood supply system."

Webber, a longtime advocate for organ donation who worked to set up the organ donor registry in Alberta, is hoping the committee's study will bring forward scientific arguments and speed up change, and he knows Wednesday's vote comes at a sensitive time.

"Since the time that I had decided to bring this forward, a very, very tragic event unfolded over the weekend in Orlando," Webber wrote on his Facebook page.

"The demand for blood can be unpredictable, but the ability to donate blood need not be. It is my hope that basing blood, organ and tissue donation safety on science alone will go a long way to ensuring that those who want to safely give life-saving donations to their fellow humans are able to do so."

Liberals hold a majority on the committee. But common ground across parties may emerge around the need for a study.

Speaking during debate on a private member's bill about creating a national organ donor registry, NDP MP Alistair MacGregor reminded the Commons that New Democrats moved in 2014 that the federal government take immediate measures to "end the current discriminatory policy governing blood and organ donations from men who have sex with men."

"It is time for evidence-based decision-making," he said. "This would ensure that all potential donors are treated with equal dignity and respect."

A government source told CBC News Wednesday that Health Minister Jane Philpott would welcome the study.

Issues around the availability of scientific research may emerge. Because the issue is highly-charged, some researchers don't want to tackle it.

Seen in this light, a broad study by the health committee — potentially examining other jurisdictions, best practices and research gaps — would be extremely helpful, the source said.

With files from Susan Lunn