Canadian Blood Services delivers apology to 2SLGBTQIA+ communities

MAY 10, 2024 (OTTAWA) – Canadian Blood Services has issued an apology to 2SLGBTQIA+ communities across Canada, acknowledging the harms experienced by gay, bisexual, and queer men, trans people, and other members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community because of a former donor eligibility policy. 

The former policy prevented all sexually active men who have sex with men, and some trans people, from donating blood and plasma. After submitting a robust body of evidence to Health Canada to demonstrate a change in policy was safe and necessary, we implemented new criteria in 2022, which now asks all donors the same questions about sexual behaviour, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.  

Dr. Graham Sher, Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Blood Services, delivered the apology in-person to 2SLGBTQIA+ community members during an event held today at Canadian Blood Services’ head office in Ottawa, Ont.  

“As an organization, we know that what we do affects the well-being of people and communities across Canada,” says Dr. Sher. “While the former policy was put in place with the intent to protect patient safety after the Canadian blood system crisis of the 1980s, we recognize that for many years the same policy reinforced a harmful public perception that someone’s blood is somehow less safe because of their sexual orientation. We regret that this policy contributed to discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, and HIV stigma within society.” 

The apology was developed in close collaboration and consultation with diverse 2SLGBTQIA+ communities in Canada, and the contents were guided by an advisory committee comprised of representatives of 2SLGBTQIA+ civil society organizations.  

"This is a historic moment, which has been made possible by tireless advocacy from community, academia, and health professionals," says Michael Kwag, Executive Director of the Community-Based Research Centre and member of Canadian Blood Services' 2SLGBTQIA+ advisory committee. "Addressing past harms is important, as Canadian Blood Services continues to work towards creating a more inclusive blood system for 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, in all their diversity. There is still work to be done, but I am encouraged knowing that progress is happening in a collaborative way." 

Canadian Blood Services has committed to ongoing engagement and action to make all policies, processes, and interactions with Canadian Blood Services more inclusive for 2SLGBTQIA+ communities in all their diversity. 

“In 2022 we reached a significant milestone in our ongoing journey to build a more inclusive blood system. Issuing an apology today is the next, necessary step in that journey,” says Dr. Sher. “We hope that the apology will serve as a foundation on which we can build trust and repair relationships with individuals and communities who were impacted by the former policy.” 

Evolution of donor eligibility criteria 

The former donor policy which prevented all sexually active gay, bisexual, queer, and other men who have sex with men, and some trans people, from donating blood and plasma was put in place in the 1980s as an intended safety measure after the blood system crisis in Canada. At the time, HIV was a relatively new disease for which research, testing and understanding of the landscape of the illness was just beginning to evolve.  

Canadian Blood Services began managing the national blood system in 1998, and first began addressing the need to evolve donor screening criteria in 2001. Thanks to rigorous, evidence-based work, incremental steps were taken to shorten the waiting period for blood and plasma donation for men who have sex with men. A number of changes were made over several years to evolve from a permanent deferral for sexually active men who have sex with men, to a series of increasingly shortened waiting periods between donors’ last sexual contact and the time of donation.  

Canadian Blood Services prioritized data and research-gathering over many years that cumulated to provide strong evidence supporting the case for change. Once we had a robust evidentiary base, informed by Canadian and international research, Canadian Blood Services made a request and received approval from Health Canada to altogether remove eligibility criteria specific to men who have sex with men. In late 2022, the new, more inclusive donor screening process was implemented which screens all blood donors based on sexual behaviour. Now, all prospective donors are asked if they have had sex with any new or multiple partners in the last three months.  

“On behalf of Canadian Blood Services, I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to the many individuals and communities who have worked tirelessly for more than a decade to make participation in Canada’s Lifeline more inclusive,” says Dr. Sher. “We will continue to work to earn the trust of people in this country as we strive to make our workplaces and donor centres inclusive and welcoming.” 

Ensuring its donor base and workforce reflect Canadian society is a priority addressed in Canadian Blood Services’ current strategic plan. The organization is continuing to work to remove barriers to inclusion for donors — which in turn will help ensure that patients of all backgrounds and identities receive the best possible treatment and care. Learn more about recent changes to donation criteria.  

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