PARIS (AP) — The European Union’s top court on Wednesday joined a growing chorus of voices questioning whether it still makes sense to forever bar all gay men from donating blood.
Several countries imposed lifetime bans on homosexual male blood donors early in the AIDS crisis, because sexually active gay men are more likely than other groups to contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But activists and some medical groups say a blanket ban is no longer justified, given advances in HIV testing.
Here’s a look at recent developments on the issue, which is important for gay rights advocates and blood banks around the world:
The European Court of Justice addressed the issue for the first time in a ruling Wednesday, prompted by a complaint by Frenchman Geoffrey Leger, who was protesting France’s law forbidding him from donating blood.
The court took a cautious stance. It said lifetime bans may be justified — but only if a donor presents a high risk of acquiring severe infectious diseases, and there is no other method to protect blood recipients.
The court also warned that France’s law is “liable to discriminate against male homosexuals on the basis of sexual orientation,” which is against EU policy. It said the case raised questions about whether lifetime bans are “consistent with the fundamental rights of the EU.”
Anticipating the European court decision, France’s government and lawmakers had already started moving toward relaxing the ban. Officials are considering a rule that limits the ban to anyone who has engaged in risky sexual activity in the past year.
French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said after Wednesday’s ruling that discriminating against donors based on sexual orientation is “unacceptable,” and that she would hold a meeting next month to lay out new guidelines.
In the United States, federal health officials recently recommended ending the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, and replacing it with a policy barring donations from men who have had sex with other men in the previous 12 months.
The Food and Drug Administration said in December it will draft new guidelines this year. The Red Cross, the American Medical Association and others have called the lifetime ban, instituted in 1983, medically and scientifically unwarranted today.
Gay advocates say the lifetime ban is discriminatory — but they also say that requiring a year of abstinence from gay and bisexual men is unrealistic, and not supported by science.
All U.S. blood donations are screened for HIV, but testing only detects the virus after it’s been in the bloodstream about 10 days. The U.S. blood banking system also bars donations from people who have had sex with a prostitute or an intravenous drug user in the past 12 months.
Germany currently prohibits blood donations from any group of people who are considered to have a “significantly increased risk of transmission” of diseases through their blood, including gay men, heterosexuals with large numbers of sexual partners, and both male and female prostitutes.
However, two government advisory health agencies and others are currently re-evaluating the guidance to see if there is a way to prohibit individuals seen as particularly high risks, rather than have a blanket restriction on categories of people as they do currently.
Belgium and the Netherlands currently have lifetime bans on gay men blood donors, and are both in the process of seeing how this could be changed.
Several European countries have dropped their lifetime bans in favor of shorter-term restrictions.
Australia abandoned its lifetime ban to a one-year ban more than a decade ago. Recently published studies showed no change in the safety of the blood supply after making the switch.
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