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Ban on gay blood donors challenged
By Robyn Grace
August 02, 2005
A TASMANIAN man has accused the Red Cross of discriminating against him because he is gay.
Michael Cain, of Launceston in northern Tasmania, today launched legal challenges with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission against a policy that prevents gay men from donating blood.
Mr Cain, 22, tried to donate blood in Launceston last October but was told the Australian Red Cross Blood Service did not accept donations from men who have had male-to-male sex in the previous 12 months.
The Red Cross nurse told him "you people" – referring to gay men – had a higher risk of blood contamination due to unsafe sex practices, Mr Cain said.
The policy, which the Red Cross deems in line with world standards, was discriminatory and unnecessary, he said.
"I know that I have safe sex ... It almost felt like I was being accused of being a dirty person," Mr Cain said.
Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesman Rodney Croome said the Red Cross donor screening process, introduced 20 years ago in response to the advent of AIDS, was outdated.
Gay and bisexual men were allowed to donate blood in Switzerland and Spain, he said.
"Now we know that AIDS is not simply a gay disease, it's a disease anyone can catch," Mr Croome said.
"It's really time for the Red Cross to change its policy and focus on whether donors have safe or unsafe sex rather than the gender of the person they have sex with."
The screening process did not question heterosexuals on their safe sex practices, but singled out gay and bisexual men as high risk, Mr Croome said.
The same men can, however, donate sperm and organs.
Mr Cain's legal challenges argue the Red Cross is discriminatory on the grounds of sexual orientation and lawful sexual activity.
The federal challenge also alleges the Therapeutic Goods Administration has contravened Australia's international human rights obligations by failing to ensure the Red Cross conforms to blood donation guidelines set by the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe guidelines said it was necessary to ask prospective male donors if they had sex with men, but they didn't say gay men should be banned from making donations, Mr Croome said.
A similar case in 1998 was taken to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission, which found the Red Cross was reasonable in its discrimination because it needed to ensure blood supplies were safe.
But Mr Croome said technology had since progressed so HIV could be detected more successfully.
"As every year goes on and the technology improves (the ban) seems even more irrational," he said.
"We can't afford to keep anyone shut out when blood supplies are so low. This ban will cost lives."
The Australian Red Cross Blood Service said the exclusion of gay men was based on a statistically higher incidence of some blood-borne diseases among gay men, and the existence of "window period" infections – infections which may be incubating in the body at the time of donation.