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“It’s the end of a taboo and discrimination,” France’s Health Minister Marisol Touraine said when she announced in November that France was moving to lift the ban that went into force in 1983, shortly after the HIV virus was discovered.
“Donating blood is an act of generosity, of citizenship, which shouldn’t be conditional upon a [person’s] sexual orientation,” the minister said at the time.
France’s ban on lesbians donating blood was lifted in 2002.
Activists and rights groups hailed the lifting of the ban, which was one of President François Hollande’s 2012 election promises. The move comes three years after the Socialist government pushed through a law legalising gay marriage.
“This is a good sign, which shows that men who have sex with other men are becoming less stigmatised … It’s helping them move towards a situation that is more equal,” said Sophie Aujean, senior policy officer at the European branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), in comments to FRANCE 24.
However, she said, the fact that this donor group will still have to abstain from sex with other males for a total of 12 months before they can donate is unfair – no restrictions of any kind are placed on the sexual practices of straight blood donors. For the donation of plasma, gay males are required to abstain from sex for four months.
“A year is a very long time, and will probably mean that a lot of men who have sex with other men will opt out of donating blood because of it,” she said.
“Four months would be more reasonable,” she added.
Virginie Combe, vice-president of the French rights group SOS Homophobia, agreed, calling the lifting of the ban a “first step” for the LGBT community in France, but adding that the year-long celibacy requirement is excessive.
“There is no way to say that a married and faithful homosexual couple is more at risk than a married and faithful heterosexual couple,” she said.
The government has said that the length of the celibacy requirement is likely to be reduced if studies confirm that it is unnecessary.
Lack of awareness
ILGA’s Aujean said that although France has progressed when it comes to tackling LGBT issues during Hollande’s time in office, many are still disappointed that new legislation hasn’t been more ambitious, for example, ensuring that LGBT issues are talked about more in schools. Aujean believes they have not been more proactive due to pressure from France’s more conservative forces.
Aujean also said, “I’m not sure that the lifting the ban will change all that much, because I don’t think a lot of people were aware of the fact that men who have sex with other men still weren’t able to donate.”
“Yes, gay marriage has been pushed through [under this government], but there was never much discussion about why it was so important. The government didn’t take the lead in talking about the human rights issue, for example,” she said.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections, Hollande and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon both vowed to lift the ban on blood donations from the gay male community if they were elected, while former president Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen said they would not.
Benoît Vallet, the head of France’s national health agency DSG, estimates that the lifting of the ban for gay males will translate into 21,000 new donors, or 37,000 more donations per year.
In 2014, 1.6 million people donated blood in France, and their blood was screened for blood transmissible diseases including syphilis, viral hepatitis B and C, HIV and HTLV. Among that number of donors, between 10 and 15 are every year found to be carrying the HIV virus, meaning the residual risk of receiving HIV contaminated blood is about one in 3.5 million. The most recent case of a patient contracting the HIV virus in France after receiving donated blood was reported 13 years ago.