Britain announced on Monday that it would loosen restrictions on blood donation by gay and bisexual men beginning next year, a shift in policy called “landmark” by the government and hailed by activists who have long fought rules they described as discriminatory.
The change will take effect next summer after the recommendations of a health committee that said a blanket ban on sexually active gay or bisexual men donating blood should be lifted. The government accepted these recommendations, saying that the changes would not affect the safety of the blood supply.
“This landmark change to blood donation is safe and it will allow many more people, who have previously been excluded by donor selection criteria, to take the opportunity to help save lives,” Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said in a statement on Monday.
The current rules stipulate that “all men must wait three months after having oral or anal sex with another man before donating.”
A statement released on Monday by the National Health Service removes the three-month barrier and says that gay and bisexual men who have had the same sexual partner for more than three months will be allowed to donate if there is no known exposure to a sexually transmitted infection and they are not using drugs to stop the spread of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. The new rules will apply across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“This opens up so many new donors for N.H.S. Blood and Transplant, leading to more lives being saved,” Stuart Andrew, a Conservative Party lawmaker and member of a parliamentary group that advocated for a review of the blood donation criteria, wrote in The Times of London on Monday.
Mr. Andrew described how he had previously been excluded from donating blood “based on who I am and who I love,” and he heralded the change in restrictions as “one of the most pioneering policies for blood donation anywhere in the world.”
In Britain, activists had been campaigning for years for a new policy. Around the world, similar restrictions have caused anger among gay-rights activists, who describe them as stigmatizing. Some men who have sex with other men even claimed that they gave blood anyway, out of frustration with the laws.
“We have for so many years felt as if we were dirty,” Ethan Spibey, the founder of FreedomToDonate, a British activist group, said by phone. The group led a coalition that campaigned for equal blood donation and worked closely with the government on the overhaul.
“This policy is a fundamental shift toward recognizing people are individuals,” Mr. Spibey added, saying that he hoped it would “have ripple effects around the world for potentially millions of gay and bi men.” For the first time, he added, “people are being assessed on their sexual behavior, not their sexuality.”
Mr. Spibey said he began campaigning to lift the restrictions in 2014, a few years after he was turned away from the blood bank because of his sexual orientation. He had been inspired to donate after his grandfather underwent lifesaving surgery, which required several pints of blood.
The new guidelines will apply to any person identifying as male who has sex with other men.
Britain joins a growing list of countries — France, Italy and Spain — that have relaxed rules on blood donations for gay or bisexual men. The restrictions were largely introduced in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, when global authorities feared spreading H.I.V. through the blood supply.
Since then, however, new H.I.V. infections have become rarer in Western countries, and screening has vastly improved. Activists and many health experts have long said the laws surrounding men who have sex with other men are antiquated and reinforce harmful stigma.
In 2017, Britain changed the time frame for gay and bisexual men to abstain from sex before donating from one year to three months, citing this as a safe buffer to ensure any blood donated would not be infected. But the health committee found that the three month rule was unnecessary for gay and bisexual men who had not engaged in risky sexual behavior.
“This change to a more individualized approach is more appropriate and nuanced and helps to destigmatize H.I.V.,” said Deborah Gold, the chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, an H.I.V. rights organization in Britain.
In January, the National Health Service said that it needed more young men to start giving blood, citing a serious gender imbalance among donors.
“Lots of gay and bisexual men want to be able to do their part and donate blood and feel like they are making that contribution,” said Ms. Gold. “This change is good for them and good for people more widely to have more safe blood in the blood supply.”
The United States and Australia still require men who have sex with other men to wait three months after having sex before donating blood. Both announced changes to their rules in April, after thousands of community blood drives were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and global blood supplies plummeted. By some estimates, more than one million donations were lost in the United States alone.
Medical professionals, however, have said the changes did not go far enough, with a group of more than 500 doctors, researchers and public health specialists in the United States signing a letter calling on the authorities to eliminate the constraints.
“We are not advocating for relaxing standards that would compromise the safety of our blood supply,” the doctors wrote. “Instead, we advocate for scientifically driven standards that uphold the utmost safety of the blood supply and simultaneously promote equity and reverse historical discrimination in blood donation.”
Around the world, activists said that Britain’s move was a good start, but that there was more work left to be done.
Jay Franzone, a Texas-based campaigner who in 2017 abstained from sex to call attention to the laws in the United States, said in a phone interview on Sunday night, “This policy is rooted in that fear of H.I.V.” He described the U.S. restrictions as a “ridiculous policy.”
“This is encouraging news, but this isn’t new science,” he added of the changes in Britain. “I look forward to the day where our policy changes in America, and our policy decisions, aren’t guided by homophobia and fear.”
Anna Schaveriencontributed reporting.
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