Starting May 3rd, 2021 all men who have sex with men (MSM) will be allowed to donate blood in Finland if they promise a celibacy period of 4 months before the transfer. This includes MSM blood donors with regular sex partners. YEEEEY!!
It’s been tough times with the Covid-19 pandemic and it has had a huge impact on so many individuals and industries, and brought extreme pressures especially on the healthcare systems around the world.
My name is Boodi and my blood type is O Negative. During the past year, so many times I’ve had the urge to go and donate blood, knowing that the hospitals are filled with so many people in need – and how in-demand my blood type is. People who carry this blood type can give blood to almost all blood types, and can only receive from O Negative donors. This would’ve been the least I could do to help others and support the healthcare system. But unfortunately, I’m banned from donating blood.
When I was a little kid at school, the teacher one day asked us to check from our parents our blood types because we were going to talk about them the next day. I was the only O- in the class. I still remember when the teacher told me my blood type is a little special, and that I can donate blood to everyone. In that moment I felt so special, the blood rushed to my head, I felt everyone was looking at me, and that I’m just sitting there in the middle trying to look humble on my invisible glittery throne with my superpower and a little smile on my face. I felt proud, I told everyone, and later in my teen years it became almost my pick up line – I mean I’m literally blogging about it 20 years later…
I grew up in Damascus, Syria and I’ve donated blood twice in my life. That was before I was confronted with the sad fact that the special thing about my blood is that it is not wanted.
I was 18, excited going to the blood bank, receiving a form to fill, seeing the “do you have sex with men” question, and automatically ticking the NO box, afraid of the consequences that might occur if I would tick YES. Then donating blood, staying in the waiting room after to see if I would get dizzy before walking home and enjoying an orange Bonjuice with pride.
I always thought that one day I will live in Europe, and I will proudly take the same form, and tick the YES box to the same question. Didn’t Imagine that by doing so, in Finland I would also be rejected.
So the history of these restrictions began during the 1980s when a range of Finnish national policies excluded populations at high risk of contracting HIV from donating blood, with a particular focus on men who have sex with men. These policies intended to protect recipients of donated blood, considering the HIV was spread especially within MSM populations, and at that time they didn’t have the testing technologies we have today. So Finland, like many other countries, imposed a lifetime ban on donating blood for men who have sex with other men. The ban was lifted in 2014, and the 12-month waiting period after a sexual encounter was introduced.
While I think the 4 months period is a big improvement, the new regulations treat couples who have sex with regular partners differently based on their sexual orientation. As Fimea’s current provision states that sex with a regular partner results in a 4-month ban when both partners are men, while sex with a regular partner does not result in a ban or restriction when the partners are of the opposite sex or two women.
Yhdenvertaisuusvaltuutettu (The Finnish Equality Ombudsman) stated on December 1st, 2020 that the eligibility definitions for blood donation violate the Constitution and the Equality Act. The Equality Ombudsman considers that the provision should be amended so that it does not treat MSM couples differently It proposes that the ban on donation caused by sex between people living in a permanent relationship should also be lifted in relationships between two men.
Some people might disagree, but I personally think that a sexless 4 month period in order to eventually donate blood is quite intense and extreme. One must really, really want to do it! otherwise, do people think that it’s worth it?
It might be worth mentioning that in Finland, the HIV prevalence in the general population is far less than 1% and the prevalence is therefore low. It seems to me that the MSM blood donation celibacy period premise revolves around the assumption that MSM blood donors have a higher risk of contaminating blood supplies due to being more vulnerable to HIV compared to other groups. Even though this is correct, the MSM population is not homogenous. MSM (They may identify as gay, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, or heterosexual, and queer men) vary largely in the number of sexual partners they have as well as in their engagement with risky sexual behaviours that result in HIV infection risks. The new policy ignores these differences and applies a blanket 4 month ban without exceptions to, for example, those with regular, monogamous partners and those who practice safer sex.
At least 17 countries now have no MSM blood donation restrictions, including Argentina, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Spain and, as of January 2020, Hungary.
Blood supplies have come under pressure especially due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the last year, I noticed that many countries have lifted the life-long ban or cut their celibacy period including the US, UK, Australia, Denmark, and Brazil, while Sweden’s one year ban remains the same.
Most countries do not mention whether taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), an HIV-prevention drug, affects MSM ability to donate blood. Britain says its 3 month abstinence period applies regardless of whether someone takes PrEP or not.
Furthermore, WE NEED BLOOD. Some 50,000 patients need blood products every year in Finland. That means approximately 800 blood donors are required every weekday.
I think the 4-month period is a good step in the right direction, but it’s still based on assumptions and stigma which makes it discriminatory. Besides, is it really effective?
In an ideal Finland, I would be having lunch with my friends, then casually all go together to donate blood to help people, regardless of our genders and sexualities.
I want my superpower back!
– Boodi Kabbani
Picture: Emma Suominen
A sincere thank you to Riikka Pennanen for her diligent proofreading of this article.