Turning down the gift of life

Detrimental organ-donation policy also impedes gay liberation movement

Justin Goddard, ArtSci ’10
Justin Goddard, ArtSci ’10

It was a bad idea, I thought to myself, as I stared down at my organ donor card. A streetlight briefly reveals my signature at the bottom. I needed this bus ride to get my thoughts in order; the lump in my stomach wouldn’t let me avoid it. I sigh and, with apprehension, I rip the card in two, then four. It was a very bad idea.

When I think of Health Canada’s policy preventing sexually active gay men from donating their organs, that visceral dissonance returns, as strongly as it did on that bus ride 10 months ago when the policy was enacted. This is a policy that has grave repercussions for the unfortunate many awaiting a transplant and bodes little better for the many more struggling with their sexual identities.

Proponents of Health Canada’s screening criteria argue the incidence of HIV in gay men is too high to warrant the risk associated with using “gay organs.” What these proponents fail to acknowledge is that the risk of contracting an infection is extremely minute; there have been only four such cases in the past 20 years. Furthermore, experts such as Dr. Gary Levy, the head of Canada’s largest transplant program at Toronto’s University Health Network, argue that the policy could reduce Canada’s stock of available organs by about 1,000. When one also considers that nearly 275 Canadians on organ waiting lists died annually in the years leading up to this change, that loss is devastating.

Although these four infections occurred relatively recently (the organs came from a single donor last November), Health Canada’s policy change was a long time in the making. In June 2003 the Canadian Standards Association proposed a set of exclusion criteria for tissue donations based on behaviours deemed to put an individual at risk for HIV and hepatitis. It was these standards that Health Canada used to guide its organ donation policy and the ones that, without a doctor’s intervention, now prevent organ donation by any man who has had homosexual sex within the past five years.

Gays aren’t singled out, though. We join other colourful characters on Health Canada’s organ “black list,” including newly-liberated ex-cons, those who have recently shared a needle for a tattoo or piercing, those who have solicited a prostitute within the past five years and those who have used intravenous drugs during that same span. Needless to say, the majority of gays do not belong on this list.

Canada has long had similar bans on homosexuals wishing to donate blood, but this decision makes slightly more sense. As it stands, tests for STIs and hepatitis are not perfect, nor is there the same shortage of donated blood that there is of donated organs. Also, blood transfusions are vastly more common than organ transplants; thus infections, though rare, will occur more frequently. This being the case, Canadian Blood Services’s screening criteria do not harm the physical well-being of those in our healthcare system, as Health Canada’s do. Social well-being, on the other hand, may be another story.

There is another compelling reason to challenge Health Canada’s policy and it is the reason I wish to force this controversial issue into the limelight now, 10 months after the policy’s implementation. Policies like these stigmatize a valid sexual orientation, so they are of ongoing relevance. Too many among us experience shame and guilt surrounding homosexuality or homosexual tendencies. Perhaps even as you read this closeted friends and family members come to mind. But why remain closeted in this golden age of equality and acceptance? The answer is that we are not yet in such a golden age, and many of society’s conditions are forbidding to those hoping to live openly as non-heterosexuals. It is time to identify conditions like these and fight them.

Though Canada’s organ donation policy probably isn’t the most adverse of the conditions stifling gay liberation, it is easily one of the most reversible. Us non-heterosexuals know what grand obstacles we face when it comes to asserting our freedom: the stale prejudices of our grandparents’ and, perhaps, parents’ generations, the pervasive and alienating ideologies of many religions and the very human tendency to fear the unknown and unfamiliar are just a few examples. And though there may be no quick fixes for any of these, a needlessly discriminatory organ-donation policy is one condition that shouldn’t be a hurdle. Any policy that promotes discrimination is, after all, widely understood to be a very bad idea.

Organ donation in Canada

• As many as 80 people can benefit from one organ and tissue donor. Organs and tissues that can be donated include the heart, lungs, kidney, pancreas, bowel, stomach, corneas, heart valves, bone grafts and skin.

• Canada consistently has one of the worst organ donor rates of industrialized countries: about 13 donors per million people, compared with 20 per million in the U.S., and more than 31 per million in Spain.

• In 2005, 1,905 organ transplants were performed in Canada, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. That same year, 275 Canadians died while on a waiting list of almost 4,000 potential recipients.

—Alexi White

Source: Edmonton Journal, April 7, 2008

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