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'A step forward': New screening criteria for sperm donors takes effect

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Canadians looking to grow their families with the assistance of sperm or egg donations should soon have more options for donors as the federal health agency does away with longstanding restrictions criticized as discriminatory.

Following a decades-long fight for a more equitable system – led by Canada's LGBTQ2S+ community – the federal government on Wednesday replaced donor restrictions targeting sexually active gay and bisexual men, as well as their partners, with a new gender-neutral, behaviour-based screening questionnaire for both sperm and ova donors.

This means that men who have sex with men are now able to legally donate to sperm banks in Canada, as part of the anonymous donation process, for the first time in more than 30 years.

Last month, Health Canada confirmed that effective May 8 it would revise a federal directive regarding the "suitability assessment of sperm and ova donors," following consultations with donor screening experts, LGBTQ2S+ groups, patient associations and industry representatives.

The decision also came after CTV News first reported last year that a gay man was taking the federal government to court, challenging the constitutionality of the policy on the basis that it violates the right to equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Our government is committed to continuing safe, inclusive, and scientifically-based sperm and ova donation policies. By following the latest evidence and science, we are ensuring that the sperm and ova supply is stable to allow all Canadians to grow their families," Health Minister Mark Holland said in a statement issued Wednesday.

While this change is being hailed as an important milestone, advocates warn the updated screening criteria could result in continued discrimination.

Two streams of donation

In Canada, there are two streams for sperm donation. One involves sperm donations made to a sperm bank for general use, which is considered the "regular process."

The other stream is known as the "direct donation process" and involves sperm donations from a donor to a recipient who are known to one another. In these cases, sexually active gay and bisexual men have been, and will continue to be, able to donate so long as the recipient signs a waiver.

But until now, Canada has prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating to a sperm bank, unless they've been abstinent for three months, even if they are in a long-term monogamous relationship.

There were related restrictions on female egg donors who had sex with men in these categories, and while the rules don't mention transgender or non-binary donors, they also applied to individuals who may not identify as male but would be categorized as men under the federal directive.

Under the "Safety of Sperm and Ova Regulation," sperm banks operating in Canada had to deem these prospective donors "unsuitable," despite all donations being subject to high standards of screening, testing and a six-month quarantine before use.

The three-month deferral period came into effect in 2020. This change was a marked update from what had been a lifetime ban, stemming from concerns over HIV transmission.

Concerns over screening

The pivot to a questionnaire screening process mirrors a 2022 change made by Canadian Blood Services to its donation policy for gay and bisexual men, as well as others in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Moving away from a blanket ban, the national blood donor organization now screens all donors based on higher risk sexual behaviours, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Similarly, Health Canada will continue to bar donations from those who have had new or multiple partners in the last three months, based on screening questions regarding anal sex.

The man leading the legal challenge has said he intends to press on because of the continued plan to screen out certain donors on the basis of sexual activity and sexual orientation in a way he considers incongruent with the science.

"In our view, effective safety procedures should be based on the individual testing of donors, instead of ruling out whole classes of individuals solely based on their sexual orientation," his lawyer Gregory Ko said.

Cell and organ donation next?

With advocates pointing to continued restrictions on cell, tissue and organ donation as the next area in need of reform, Health Canada in Wednesday's statement said that changes could be afoot. 

The federal health agency said it is working with the Canadian Standards Association "to discuss potential changes" to the screening criteria for gay and bisexual donors.

This criteria is currently being reviewed by experts in the field, according to the government.

"The Government of Canada is working toward a more inclusive donation system that is supported by the recent advancements in scientific evidence," Health Canada said. 

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