Planned update to sperm-donor questions still unfair to gay, bisexual men: lawyer

A lawyer says planned revisions to a nearly 30-year-old policy on who can donate to sperm banks will continue to impose unnecessary screening questions on gay and bisexual men.

Greg Ko, co-counsel for a Toronto man who launched a constitutional challenge alleging the current policy is discriminatory, said potential donors will still be asked if they had anal sex with one person or had multiple sexual partners in the previous three months. There is no scientific justification for those questions, he added.

"While we want to celebrate this important milestone my client is reasonably disappointed that Health Canada has not taken this far enough," Ko said Friday.

Anyone who has had anal sex with a new partner or multiple partners in the previous three months will still not be permitted to donate sperm as of May 8, Health Canada said.

But the federal agency said it is replacing current screening questions that single out men who have sex with men "with gender-neutral, sexual behaviour-based donor screening questions."

"Health Canada consulted with subject-matter experts in the area of donor screening as well as with a broader range of stakeholders, including 2SLGBTQA+ groups, patient associations and industry on a proposed updated approach to making sperm and ova donor criteria more inclusive," it said.

Ko said the constitutional challenge, filed in January 2023, initiated the consultation process last August.

Gay and bisexual men have been allowed for the last four years to donate sperm to someone they know but many were still barred from donating to sperm banks, he said.

Anyone who is in a long-term relationship or has been abstinent for three months has also been permitted to donate sperm, Ko said.

The ban on anonymous sperm donation from gay men was imposed in 1996 based on the belief that there was a higher prevalence of infectious diseases such as HIV in that population.

However, all donors are tested for infectious diseases and their donation is held in quarantine for 180 days, at which point the donor is retested, Ko said.

"We understand that double-testing plus quarantine procedure allows all sperm banks to effectively screen individual donors for infectious diseases without resorting to barring people from even donating."

As of September 2022, everyone who donates blood in Canada is screened for high-risk sexual behaviour, not just men who have sex with men.

However, Ko said Health Canada's "gender-neutral" screening questions about anal sex still amount to "indirect discrimination" against gay and bisexual men who want to donate sperm.

"Ultimately, you're still targeting a certain community. This is an attempt to improve the directive's inclusiveness but it fails to remove the discriminatory impact. If the tests are good enough for the general population, then they should be good enough for all, regardless of sexual orientation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press