Dispute Over Blood Donations Divides Homosexuals in Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A legal complaint in Australia over Red Cross restrictions on blood donations from homosexuals has triggered a squabble within the homosexual community, with charges and epithets flying.

Some activists have accused others of undermining the "safe sex" message by suggesting that sex between men carries the risk of HIV/AIDS whether condoms are used are not. Many conservatives have been making that argument for years.

At the heart of the clash is a complaint currently being considered by the state of Tasmania's Anti-Discrimination Commission.

Michael Cain, 22, charges that the Australian Red Cross Blood Service acted in a discriminatory way when it refused to take blood from him because he was a sexually active homosexual.

Because of HIV/AIDS risks, the blood service excludes donors who have had "male-to-male sex" within the preceding 12 months.

Nor will it take blood from anyone who in the previous 12 months has had a tattoo, a blood transfusion, a body piercing, been in prison, had sex with a prostitute or had a partner with hepatitis B or C.

Cain argued that the Red Cross should have taken blood from him regardless of his sexual history, and then tested it for HIV. He said its refusal to allow him to donate contravened anti-discrimination legislation passed in Tasmania in 1998.

As the Red Cross earlier this month prepared its detailed 60-page response to the complaint, its case was bolstered when three of Australia's major AIDS bodies came out in support.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, Australian Society for HIV Medicine and AIDS Council of New South Wales ran a joint advertisement in homosexual media, supporting the Red Cross stance.

In Australia, they said, those who have male-to-male sex "are the group most likely to have HIV."

Noting that 80 percent of Australians receive blood at some stage during their lifetime, the three bodies said "all people have a right to uncompromised blood supplies and that means screening donors and blood to make sure it is safe."

"Donating blood is not a 'right,' " they added.

The intervention by the AIDS bodies brought an angry response from some quarters.

Tasmania-based Rodney Croome, arguably Australia's leading homosexual activist, questioned where the three organizations' "ultimate loyalties lie" and concluded that they were "Red Cross glove puppets."

"Do [the three groups] care more about gay men being unfairly stigmatized as lepers, or their own standing with government and the corporate health sector?" he asked.

Croome, who heads the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, criticized the three organizations for not consulting with Cain - the man challenging the blood donation policy - before releasing an ad which could have an impact on his legal case.

Croome also went further, charging in a statement that the AIDS bodies were undermining the "safe sex" argument.

"For 20 years AIDS experts have been rightly telling us that safe sex is good enough to protect the lives of gay men, but now they're saying it's not good enough to protect the blood supply," he said.

"Either safe sex prevents the transmission of HIV or it doesn't."

By suggesting the latter, the very organizations entrusted to protect homosexuals from infection were instead "sending out a highly irresponsible message." Croome implied that this "message" may result in some homosexuals shunning condoms.

A Red Cross spokeswoman said Thursday the organization could not comment on a case before the legal commission.

"In terms of international standards we're one of the safest blood services in the world. We do have quite strict policies in a lot of different areas and this is just one of them," she said.

"For years we have been saying that using condoms does not mean 'safe sex,' " Jenny Stokes, research director for a Christian ethics group, Salt Shakers, said Thursday.

"It may make it 'safer' but it does not guarantee immunity from acquiring HIV/AIDS."

Stokes compared using a condom in a bid to avoid AIDS with jumping out of a plane with a parachute.

"You want to know that the parachute is safe, not just safer."

"The homosexual activists may want to argue about 'safe sex' or 'safer sex' and play Russian roulette with their lives, but we want to ensure that we have a safe blood supply," she said.

'Put down the victim flag'

The debate continues on the website of a Sydney newspaper catering for homosexual, lesbian and bisexual readers.

"If I or a loved one is in a situation where we are to receive blood, I want to know that the Red Cross has done all they can to minimize the risk of infection from blood-borne diseases," wrote one reader from New South Wales.

"If that means that the Red Cross has to make some tough decisions and exclude certain groups of people as a risk management tool, then so be it."

But another contributor said there was a "bigger picture" to consider.

"Imagine how young people who are just coming to terms with their sexuality would feel when their attitudes about being gay are tainted by the Red Cross' policy and the community [organizations] public supporting of that policy."

A third wrote: "Thank God for ACON and the Red Cross. As someone who became HIV positive in 1984 due to three blood transfusions, let me say I am glad diligent screening of all blood supplies continues to this day in an effort to stop the spread of the virus by blood products."

It was time for Croome to "put down his always-ready-to-wave 'victim' flag," he said.

In the U.S., the American Red Cross says prospective donors "should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV."

"You are at risk for getting infected if you ... are a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977," it says.

In Britain, men who have had sex with men are permanently banned from donating blood.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow