France to Lift Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

Paris — France will lift a ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men starting next year, officials announced Wednesday, joining a growing list of countries that have loosened or scrapped such restrictions, which many see as outdated vestiges of the 1980s AIDS crisis.

“Giving one’s blood is an act of generosity and of civic responsibility that cannot be conditioned by sexual orientation,” the health minister, Marisol Touraine, said in a statement. “While respecting the absolute security of patients, it is a taboo, a discrimination that is being lifted today.”

Ms. Touraine first announced the policy change in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde.

Gay advocacy groups in France welcomed the end of the ban but criticized new provisions that would continue to treat homosexual and heterosexual blood donors differently.

Starting in the spring, men who have not been sexually active with other men in the preceding 12 months will be able to donate blood. Gay men who have had only one partner for the preceding four months, or who have not been sexually active, will be able to donate blood plasma.

About a year later, if studies show that the new policy has not increased health risks, the deferral period for gay men will gradually be brought in line with the deferral period for heterosexual donors. In France, heterosexual donors may not donate blood if they have had more than one partner in the preceding four months.

Deferral periods exist, officials say, because some sexually transmitted infections, including H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, cannot be detected by tests during a certain period after infection.

The announcement by France goes somewhat further than a policy proposed in the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration has sought to end a longstanding ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men.

In the United States, a proposal put forward in May would still prohibit blood donations by men who have had sex with other men in the previous 12 months.

Some critics, while welcoming the lifting of the lifetime ban, say that a 12-month deferral period is not medically justified, mainly because the so-called window period for H.I.V. is much shorter than 12 months. They assert that the restriction amounts to a de facto lifetime ban for many gay men, since it requires that they be celibate for a year before being able to donate blood.

France’s ban was enacted in 1983 to counter the spread of AIDS.

The French gay advocacy group SOS Homophobie said in a statement on Wednesday that it “welcomed” the end of the ban in France but that it “very strongly regretted the continuation of discriminations based on sexual orientation.” It called instead for a “four-month deferral period for everybody, and only in cases where risks have been taken.”

Jean-Luc Romero-Michel, a local politician in Paris and the president of an association of elected officials fighting AIDS, said he was happy to see the ban lifted after so many years.

“But what I don’t understand is why we don’t condition blood donation by high-risk behavior,” Mr. Romero-Michel, who is openly gay, said in a telephone interview. “It isn’t being heterosexual that is a risk. It isn’t being gay that is a risk. It is behaviors that are risky.”

Mr. Romero-Michel also said he worried it would take much longer than announced to bring the deferral period for homosexual blood donors in line with that of heterosexuals.

France is not the first country in Europe to repeal the blood ban. While nations including Austria, Belgium and Germany still have lifetime bans, others, like Britain and the Netherlands, have replaced bans with a 12-month deferral period.

In Italy and Spain, donors are screened for high-risk sexual practices regardless of their sexual orientation, and deferrals are made case by case.

The Court of Justice, which ensures that European Union laws are interpreted and applied the same way across the bloc, ruled in April that banning gay or bisexual men from donating blood could be justified only under strict conditions.

Australia, Japan and New Zealand allow gay men to donate blood if their last sexual contact with a man was more than a year earlier.

by Aurelien Breeden
Source – The New York Times