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Blood Donation Controversy Boils Over Again

Blood donation is one of the more lively topics of conversation in South Africa. One’s plasma and platelets, quite naturally, are closely linked to one’s wider group identity – and when the blood of any group is deemed inferior or unusable, collective hackles get raised.

The SA blood wars first exploded in 2004, when it came to light that blood donated by black people was discarded outright – chucked straight into the incinerator – and never made it into the blood banks of the SA National Blood Service. How this ludicrously oafish screening policy managed to survive the first ten years of democracy is anyone’s guess. Using a racial test to determine if blood is safe is about as appropriate (and politically viable) in South Africa as using the old SA vierkleur flag for a backdrop during the nightly news broadcast.

As might be imagined, a whopping public row ensued, leaving the SANBS soundly whipped when the dust settled. The service promised to use a more nuanced screening process, and began accepting donated blood from black people – for the first time – in October last year.

But is hasn’t beat its reputation for prejudice yet. The logic the SANBS was forced to accept in backing down – that there are ways of testing for blood safety which both meet the standards of science and prevent the exclusion of culturally-defined groups from the donor pool – extends to aspects of people’s personal lives beyond race.

For instance? – sexual orientation. Gay men aren’t allowed to give blood in SA, and gay men want to know the reason why. In a highly confrontational action last week, several of them donated blood without ticking the “Yes” box corresponding to the indelicately-put “self-exclusion” question 2.5.C on the donation form: “In the past 5 years, have you had male-to-male sex?” Now their blood is part of South Africa’s blood reserves, and the SANBS is hopping mad.

In this case, the blood service will likely have an easier time standing its ground: the political consequences of excluding gay men will never carry the same threat as those of excluding black people. But if a new risk management model can be used to include the latter – and thus widen the pool of potential blood donors, to the good of all South Africans – then why not the former? That question has left the SANBS rather tongue-twisted in recent public radio and TV debates.

The service’s website currently states that it “accepts blood from all South Africans“. Not quite. SA Blog looks forward to the day when this statement drops its underlying racial inflection, and means what it says. Meanwhile, the blood wars continue.