Finding out that as a gay man, I couldn’t donate blood was quite a shock. To add to this shock, I felt guilt and – to be honest – shame. That’s because when I tried to donate, my Grandad had recently undergone a major operation, needing several pints of blood to keep him alive. As a family, we had decided to repay those who had saved his life by donating blood, and when I discovered that I wasn’t allowed to repay that debt, it sent my stomach plummeting.
As blood donation rules currently stand, a gay man who has had sex in the last 12 months cannot donate blood. This restriction was introduced in 2011 following a review by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO). Given the fact that donors had saved my Grandad’s life, around two and a half years ago, I decided to turn that guilt and shame into something productive, and FreedomToDonate began.
I set about building a team of similarly passionate campaigners and the campaign began an intense programme of parliamentary and government engagement, building cross sector and cross party support. Fast forward to May 2017, and I’ve never felt closer to repaying those donors.
FreedomToDonate’s first major achievement was in November 2015 when, in answer to the campaign in the chamber of the House of Commons, the then Public Health Minister, Jane Ellison MP announced a review into blood donation criteria. Six months later, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Blood Donation, which the FreedomToDonate campaign helped to launch, had announced a parliamentary inquiry, bringing together leading charities, organisations and health experts in this policy area. The Inquiry bolstered public and parliamentary support, with almost 50,000 people signing a petition and senior figures from all political parties voicing support.
I have personally contributed to several of the APPG’s evidence sessions in Parliament and it’s fair to say we are now on the cusp of a world-leading blood donation policy. There is a wide consensus from health and LGBT organisations alike that the current 12-month deferral period for gay men will be significantly reduced to as little as three months. Such a significant reduction in the current deferral period could allow thousands of people to make the life-saving gesture of donating blood, while most importantly, maintaining the safety of the blood supply. It would also represent perhaps the most liberal blood donation policy for gay men in countries that have adopted a deferral-based period of blood donation.
Sitting here on the edge of a world-leading blood donation policy is truly humbling. I couldn’t be prouder of what a group of dedicated campaigners have managed to achieve – and it may well mean that I can finally repay those mystery donors.
Ethan Spibey is the founder and director of FreedomToDonate