The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland has ruled that the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood is not disproportionate, and that the issue is not one with which UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt can interfere.
Since 2011, gay men have been permitted to donate blood in England, Wales and Scotland, provided they have not had sexual activity in the previous 12 months. However, Northern Ireland maintained a lifetime ban, which had been set in place at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
For years now, there has been debate over whether the blood ban issue should be resolved through an intervention by the UK Health Secretary, who would theoretically overrule the Northern Ireland Health Minister.
Today, the Court of Appeal have ruled that responsibility lies solely at Stormont, as health is a devolved matter, reserved for the Northern Ireland Assembly to manage.
The current Health Minister Simon Hamilton, of the DUP, has said
that he would consider lifting the lifetime ban and adopting the 12 month deferral period, if he was given evidence that the blood supply in the rest of the UK had become safer since the 2011 changes.
Now, in theory, he could bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK if he is satisfied with an upcoming report from the government advisory body. But, if he decides not to, the law is on his side.
John O'Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland, told the BBC
that the Court's conclusion that the lifetime ban was "not disproportionate" was "disappointing".
"It is disappointing that they failed to recognise that there is no reasonable, rational or medical reason to maintain this lifetime ban," said Mr O'Doherty. "We would once again urge Minister Hamilton to accept the advice given by the experts in SABTO and adopt the one year deferral which exists in all other parts of the UK."
He added, "While the Minister may state that he has not yet made a decision, any right-thinking person would accept that five years is enough time to come to a decision."
There was also something of an apology today for former Health Minister Edwin Poots, who was criticised for maintaining the ban in 2013. Then, a court ruled his opposition to removing the lifetime ban was "irrational", "infected by apparent bias" and predetermined by his Christian beliefs.
Poots is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, who has voiced his views on homosexuality being wrong, and long opposed gay rights in Northern Ireland.
One of three judges in today's case, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said
, "There is no basis for the conclusion that the Minister's decision in this case was predetermined by his Christian beliefs."
He added, "There is ample evidence to indicate that the Minister approached the decision-making by evaluating the competing factors before adopting on a precautionary basis the status quo."
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