Monday, March 17, 2008

Blood donation

Just a few words about the rather long running issue of complaint by gay and bisexual men who feel excluded by not being able to donate blood.

This is one of the issues that has been campaigned on by the NUS LGBT Campaign - I think it's a great campaigning opportunity for student LGBT groups because it allows for greater LGBT visibility on campus and highlights different ways in which LGBT people may be treated differently within society.

But it is important for us not to miss the wider picture of rights.

It has also been debated at UNISON LGBT Conference, UNISON National Delegate Conference and UNISON's Health Conference and the TUC LGBT Conference and has gained recent prominence in reporting by the BBC and Pink News.

In my view the approach taken by UNISON's National Delegate Conference is a sensible balanced one, demonstrating the need for decisions on who may and may not be able to give blood to based on medical evidence relating to the risk posed. I think that's the right approach.

It's an important issue - donor selection should not be without scrutiny and there can be a damaging impact from banning a whole section of the community from donating blood.

Obviously a set of criteria based on sexual activity is far preferable than one based on belonging to a group (in this case men who have had oral or anal sex with other men - gay men per se are permitted to give blood and many men who self define as gay or bi may not have engaged in oral or anal sex - equally there are many heterosexual men who have engaged in oral or anal sex with men).

So if possible I would prefer for us to move away from a lifetime blanket ban, provided it is supported by scientific evidence.

This would enhance gay and bisexual men's sense of citizenship and inclusion in society - an important goal in itself. It would tend to reinforce messages of safer sex (I stress the word safer because anal and oral sex are still risky activities and even use of condoms does not eliminate that risk entirely).

Whilst equitable treatment of potential donors is important the rights of recipients take precedence. They must do, if they clash in any way. Blood donation isn't for the good and well being of the donors - it's for the recipients. The right to life is more important than the right not to feel rejected.

So where are we now?

Australia has removed its lifetime ban and replaced it with a 12 month deferral for anyone who has had "male to male" sex. It seems like a sensible policy, but it's one that the UK, Canada, the US and Sweden have declined to follow. Recent statistical modelling has indicated even the Australian model would lead to an increase of risk of infected blood within the blood supply. This does of course remain to be seen in practice. In a few years' time we'll have actual evidence of the quantity of infected blood in Australia and whether it's gone up, down or stayed the same.

Although all blood donations are screened for HIV and other infections, these tests aren't 100% effective - the tests aren't 100% accurate (i.e. they have error rates, though small), there is a window period - 3 month, though it may be much more reduced than that and there is human error in the lab. So there is still a risk and a good rationale for preventing donations through donor screening if it can effectively be done.

Currently between a half and a third of infected donations in the UK are given by men who have had sex with men and have in some instances given blood on a previous occasion. That is to say that a group compirisng about 3% of the polulation accounts for between 33% and 50% of infected donations even when there is a ban in place supposedly preventing them from donating. So clearly we are dealing with a high risk group for HIV (we'd all prefer it wasn't the case but the figures are there and can't be argued with - by these figures between 10 and 20 times higher than the general population that is not otherwise in a high risk group).

So, yes, it would be great if we could adopt the Australian model. Only time will tell if it is effective. I hope it is.

But any such move in the UK should be evidence based and not based purely on write ins, petitions and popular opinion, which don't always take account of the bigger picture of the need to safeguard a supply of blood for those who need transfusions.

Right to remain

Very interesting Leader in the Times of the 14th March titled "Right to Remain".

It congratulates the Government for changing its mind on the call for asylum to be granted for Mehdi Kazemi stating:

The Government swiftly drew back yesterday from a monstrous injustice.
Within hours of receiving a letter from more than 60 members of the House of
Lords, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, announced that the Government would
reconsider its refusal to grant asylum to a 19-year-old Iranian homosexual, who
fears he will be hanged if he is sent back to Iran.

It is good to see there is a high level recognition in the wider media of the dangers of sending LGB people back to Iran and therefore a wider recognition that facing persecution on the grounds of one's sexuality is as good a claim for genuine asylum as a claim based on religion or political views.

This also opens up the need for the UK, EU and other countries (such as the US) to be very clear about LGBT human rights in the international sphere (e.g. at the UN and human rights treaty bodies).

The fight goes on and shows the vital importance of having organisations such as ILGA working at the international level.

One to watch

Norway has announced the introduction of legislation to equalise the marriage law.

This is significant because Norway was one of the 1st countries to intoriduce civil partnerships within a Scandinavian bloc and it is known that Sweden is also considering equalising its marriage law.

This is also of significance because Scandinavian countires tend to be overwhelmingly Lutheran and their Churches are in Communion with the Anglican Church via the Porvoo Agreement. Evidence from the Swedish Lutheran Church is of an attitude of pragmatism if not yet acceptance of same sex relationships and certainly not the hysteria that exists in the Church of England and Anglican Communion.

Wikipedia has an interesting article here. No doubt it will be updated as the Bill progresses.

365gay news report here

Congratulations to the French socialists

Although the French Parti Socialiste had been working hard to give voters the impression that it was hopelessly divided and anti-EU it is currently managing a bit of a Phoenix operation in the French municipal elections.

Coming so soon - less than a year - after losing the 3rd Presidential election in a row they have managed to do really well in gaining many town halls across France.

Dearest to my heart is the gain of Strasbourg again with a particularly pleasing absolute majority, but gains all over France of many cities including those that are traditionally right wing.

Bertrand Delanoe did well in his re-election in Paris and is being touted as a possible leader of the French socialists in opposition to Segolene Royal.

Last year I must admit I felt quite hopeless about the left in France - and its fragmentation and internal divisions continues to be a worry. Clearly though, Sarkozy is not proviong as popoular as people may have thought and there is a significant potential in future national elections.

Analysis aside - just the sheer joy that Strasbourg is socialist again!

3rd reading of the Lisbon Treaty

Just catching up on some blogging to mention the excellent debate in the House of Commons to give the Lisbon Treaty Bill a 3rd Reading (11th March)

Previously the House debated a proposal to submit the Bill to a referendum and defeated it - rightly in my view.

There is nothing that has been brought to my attention that would come anywhere near warranting a referendum, which in general is a bad way to make major political decisions, given we are a Parliamentary democracy with the idea that a parliamentary majority is the way all our major decisions are made.

There is of course a role for referendums, notably where the governing party is divided and cannot sustain its majority or because of a fundamental change such as adopting the euro or where a proposed change is (paradoxically) of less importance and you want to give people a choice at a local level (such as elected mayors, regional assemblies).

The only case for a referendum on the now defunct Constitution (which in itself was not that ambitious and represented incremental change) was that it had the symbolism of a Constitution and it was that kind of symbolics which suggested a referendum was of value.

At the time I must say I was not convinced. Europe isn't for most people a misty eyed thing that you embrace and fall in love with. For me it's a pragmatic mechanism that as a matter of simple fact the UK decided to join the EU because it felt it was in its overall interests and for that reason stays and works to improve it.

Going out there and persuading people to love the EU is daft - for good or ill (usually for ill, but there we have it) we Brits are congenitally sceptical of anything and love nothing better than poking fun at them there foreigners with their strange ways that are so clearly inferior to ours.

(This was the reason that we joined the EU late - 1972 as opposed to 1958 when it was first set up. We just couldn't believe that something run by our continental 'cousins' would work. We wanted to be "in Europe, but not run by Europe" a vast "area of free trading sovereign nations" .... so we set up EFTA as an alternative but seeing that the EU worked quite well we decided - that is to say the elected majority in Parliament decided - to join the EU - of course the Labour government did hold a referendum because it was so hopelessly divided it had to do so to maintain its majority and stay in office, but not for any other reason).

All those wonky banana stories are just too good to not print if you are a tabloid editor - though the determination of our culture to prick pomposity and lampoon any bureaucracy is not a totally bad trait either.

And all of these traits have helped to form the Lisbon Traety which makes the EU work at 27 as opposed to 15 (with surely the thought that there are quite a few countries yet to come in, albeit smaller e.g. the Balkan states) but addressing all of the negotiating points identified by eurosceptics over the years. Subsidiarity is in the Treaty and is defined along with a principal of conferral (the EU only has power explicitly conbferred on it, for example. Britain has oodles of 'opt ins', that is areas where the UK can opt in if it wants to but doesn't have to and there is explicit recognition of the role of the National Parliaments, giving them a veto over extensions of qualified majority voting.

Of course there's a lot of content that's the same as the defunct Constitution, but that's because there is widespread agreement on some relatively minor changes, like ending the rather silly rotating presidency (rotating every 6 months), extending QMV in some areas (mostly technical) and improving the votes' weighting system - increasing the UK's share of the vote.

In summary:

- Yes to the EU and our continued membership
- Yes to the Treaty of Lisbon as a good amending Treaty
- No to a referendum because we are a Parliamentary democracy
- Yes (hopefully) to an end to euro-institutional navel gazing
- No to any more EU treaties (amending or otherwise) for the next 20 years........

The link to the Hansard debate at 3rd reading is here

The link to the Parliament web for the Bill is here

For information on who voted which way see here

The Government majority was 140, which is very solid.