For the first time in decades, healthy people of any gender or sexual orientation who have had the same sexual partner for at least three months are eligible to donate blood, plasma and platelets in most of the United Kingdom as of Monday, under new National Health Service guidelines.
That marks a significant change for people who identify as male and have male-identifying sexual partners, who in many countries, including the United States, are barred from or subject to strict rules on giving blood, in what critics say are policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Previously, gay and bisexual men in England, Scotland and Wales were not permitted to donate within three months of having been sexually active, because of fears around the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other infections, despite studies showing no increased risk, as all donor samples are tested rigorously.
The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service has delayed implementing the new criteria until September, saying it needs more time to prepare for the changes.
In December, following a two-year-long study led by British blood services and LGBTQ groups, the NHS announced that it would be revising its criteria effective this summer.
“The changes mean that a donor’s eligibility to donate will be based on a more individualised assessment rather than on a risk assigned to a group or population, marking a historic move to make blood donation more inclusive without affecting safety,” the NHS wrote last month on its website.
“Donors will no longer be asked if they are a man who has had sex with another man,” the guidance continued. “Instead, any individual who attends to give blood – regardless of gender – will be asked if they have had sex and, if so, about recent sexual behaviors.”
Potential donors are screened for their potential exposure to and any history of sexually transmitted diseases. NHS rules still bar from donating anyone who has had multiple sexual partners or anal sex with a new partner within the past three months, as well as anyone with known STD exposure or who takes the HIV prevention medication pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
“We screen all donations for evidence of significant infections, which goes hand-in-hand with donor selection to maintain the safety of blood sent to hospitals,” Ella Poppitt, chief nurse for blood donation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said in a statement.
The NHS made the change to expand eligibility amid declines in blood donations during the coronavirus pandemic. Gay and bisexual men who had recovered from covid-19 were also barred from donating their plasma to U.K. coronavirus trials.
The pandemic was also an impetus for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last spring to somewhat revise its policy – although critics say it is still not based on sound science.
Before 2015, the FDA banned anyone who identified as male and had male sexual partners from giving blood, a policy dating to 1983, amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Following years of pushback, the agency revised its lifelong ban to a year-long abstinence deferral period.
In April 2020, the FDA changed its criteria again, shortening the wait to three months of no sexual activity.
The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that campaigns for LGBTQ rights, said U.S. policy remains discriminatory as it is based on “membership in a group . . . rather than engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex,” read a statement on the organization’s website.
While sexually active gay men are barred, it said, a straight man or woman “who has had unprotected sex with multiple partners over the same time frame with no knowledge of their personal histories remains in the donor pool.”
The HRC called on the U.S. government to further revise its criteria, to base it on “individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors upon which all donors are evaluated equally, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.”