What you need to know about Canada’s blood donation ban on men who have sex with men

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Health Canada has shortened the blood donation ban for men who have sex with men (MSM) from one year to three months.

The background On Wednesday, Health Canada approved a request from the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) and Héma-Québec to reduce the blood donation ban for MSM from a year to three months. This means MSM can donate blood if it’s been at least three months since their last sexual contact with another man.

Canada used to have a lifetime ban for MSM donors. This meant men were unable to donate blood if they had sexual relationships with other men any time after 1977. The ban was introduced in the mid-1980s by the Canadian Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service (CBS’s predecessor) in an attempt to protect the blood supply from HIV.

In 1992, Health Canada, the national blood system regulator, began to regulate blood products and adopted the ban on MSM donors. In 2006, the CBS reviewed the MSM eligibility criteria and concluded the ban should be maintained but that the organization should gather more information on the subject.

In 2010, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the MSM blood donors ban is not discriminatory because it is based on health and safety considerations. This decision was a response to a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge launched in 2002.

In her ruling, Superior Court Justice Catherine Aitken said donating blood is not at the heart of a person’s identity in the same way as working, being in a relationship or worshipping. Aitken ruled that donating blood is a gift, not a right.

In 2011, the CBS’s board of directors approved plans to move away from the lifetime ban for MSM donors toward a defined term of not more than 10 years and not less than five years since last sexual contact. The updated terms lasted until 2013 when Health Canada approved two separate requests to reduce the ban to five years. This was then changed to one year in 2016 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

However, during the 2015 federal election, the Liberals had promised to end the ban altogether. At the time, they called the ban discriminatory and said it “ignores scientific evidence.” When asked about the continued ban, Trudeau, in a 2016 interview with Xtra, said he was disappointed that it was still in place and emphasized that his government had promised $3 million for further research to help bolster the case for its end.


Last month, a petition was filed with the House of Commons calling on the Liberal government to stop the ban because of its stigmatization of gay and bisexual men. The petition also argues that the policy excludes a potential pool of healthy, safe donors.

In its announcement on Wednesday, Health Canada said the decision was based on scientific data that shows reducing the wait times for MSM donors in 2013 and 2016 did not result in an increase of HIV-positive blood donations.

Here are the key things you need to know:

  • There is no international scientific consensus on the optimal deferral period for MSM blood donors.
  • On its website, CBS says Canada differs from other countries because the organization uses population-based HIV screening specific to the country. This is also the reason why Canada can’t adopt approaches from other countries.
  • MSM are not banned entirely, they just have to abstain from sexual contact with another man within the new time period. This is because, according to CBS, MSM account for the largest proportion of new HIV infections reported in Canada.
  • This ban does not affect women who have sex with women because they’re not in a high-risk group for HIV.
  • The three-month ban affects trans donors. Trans people will be evaluated based on their anatomical sex at the time of donation. Donors who have had lower gender affirming surgery have to wait for a year after surgery before they’re eligible to donate blood. After the one year, donors will be screened in their affirmed gender.

Now what? In a statement, Dr Graham Sher, chief executive officer of CBS said this reduced time period is a step forward in updating the organization’s blood donation criteria. Right now, there are 15 research projects being funded that relate to the exploration of alternative screening approaches. The CBS says these projects are expected to provide the body of evidence-based research needed to further evolve the eligibility criteria MSM.

However, some people aren’t happy with this decision. In a tweet, journalist Justin Ling says “any ban is still homophobic.” Activist Mike Morrison also tweeted: “Straight people can have sex with new people every weekend and donate blood. But even though I’ve been with my partner for seven years, I cannot. This is not progress.”

Vancouver researcher Nathan Lachowsky says the updated terms miss the mark. In a statement, Lachowsky says while he welcomes this decision as a step in the right direction, it also still signals to the general population that MSM’s blood is risky in a way that other people’s blood is not.

The new policy will take effect across the country on June 3. Canada will join England, Scotland and Wales, which all have a three-month deferral period for MSM donors.


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Arvin Joaquin is a journalist and editor. He was previously an associate editor at Xtra.

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