By Rebecca Tucker
When he learned that the government wasn’t going to accept his organs, Paul Luciani tore up his donation card.
In December 2007, Health Canada announced that gay men, intravenous drug users and other “high risk” individuals would be excluded as organ donors, in accordance with a new screening process.
Under the new regulations, any man who has had sex with another man in the past five years will likely not be accepted as an organ donor.
“It’s a piece of paper that’s useless now,” Luciani, a gay fourth-year theatre production student, said about his card.
However, he may have acted too quickly, as the controversial regulation has caused confusion and misinformation within the gay community about how the regulations will be followed.
Though it appears the government is turning down all gay organ donors, the rule does not prevent anyone from identifying as a potential donor on a card, said Carrie Hato, a spokesperson from Trillium Gift of Life Network, the organization that governs organ donations in Ontario. “Everybody can get a donor card,” she said.
However, there is a difference between holding a donor card and donating ogans. When someone dies — the source of most donated organs — doctors will ask the family about the deceased’s sexual history. This is the process regardless of the sexual preference of the donor.
If the family says the person was gay, the organ will be classified as high risk and be sent for testing.
Health Canada says that this regulation is meant to provide further safety for organ recipients.
“If a potential donor has a risk factor, the regulations allow for their organs to be used based on the judgment of the transplanting physician and with the informed consent of the recipient,” said Paul Duchesne, senior media relations advisor for Health Canada.
The new regulations only formalize practices that have been instrumental in screening prospective organ donors for years, Duchesne said. He maintains that healthy organs of those initially deemed to be high-risk will be used if, after testing, they are determined to be healthy.
But Hato said nothing has really changed. “A guideline has become a regulation,” she said.
Still, the extra step to check organs donated by homosexuals is seen as homophobic by many people in the gay community.
“It has to do with the stereotype of the promiscuous gay man,” Luciani said. “All organs and blood should be Paul Duchesne, Health Canada senior media relations advisor, maintains that healty organs of those initially deemed to be high-risk will be used if, after testing, they are determined to be healthy. tested no matter what. [They] shouldn’t lump people together.”
Advocacy groups across the province have called for Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman — who is openly homosexual — to revoke the regulation.
“The government shouldn’t be perpetuating stereotypes,” said Helen Kennedy of gay and lesbian advocacy group Egale Canada in a statement. “It bans men who have been vigilant about safe sex practices.”
Kennedy agrees that organs donated to those in need must be disease-free and safe for transplant, but disagrees with the suggestion that all homosexual males should be discriminated against based on their sexual preference.
“[We should be] bringing everyone to the table and drafting regulations that truly ensure the safety of the organ transplant system,” she said.
Other factors that doctors consider when screening donors include intravenous drug use, a recent tattoo or piercing, hemophilia and whether the donor has had sex in exchange for money or drugs in the preceding five years. Inmates of correctional facilities are also considered high-risk.
Many of Canada’s prominent organ donation networks, including the country’s largest organ transplant program at Toronto’s University Health Network, were unaware that these new regulations were in the works until well after they were implemented as policy by Health Canada in December.
At Ryerson, RyePRIDE has launched an awareness campaign aimed at educating gay men of their rights and responsibilities in terms of organ donation.
“It’s important that members of the community are aware of the new rules,” says Jesse Trautmann, RyePRIDE’s coordinator, who adds that he is hopeful the ban will be lifted.
“Awareness is key to responsible behaviour among those who do hope to donate organs.”
Allen Van Den Berg, a sexually-active gay man, doesn’t want these new regulations from getting in the way of him helping someone.
“I’m still hoping that, after I die, something good will come of what I leave behind,” says Van Den Berg, who lost his father to cancer several years ago.
He and his partner will continue to carry their donor’s cards in their wallets and hope their organs will be deemed permissable.
“I’ve watched a lot of people I love get sick and perish,” he said, “And if I can help at least one person live and prevent their family from dealing with loss and misery, then I want to do everything I can to help.”