Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Why we need to keep religion out of politics

Science fiction: the blood donations policy of Health Minister, Edwin Poots is rooted more in religious conviction than medical fact

Three-quarters of Christians believe that religion should not have a special influence on public life while most believe that homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as the rest of us.

These statistics, from an Ipsos/Mori poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Religions and Science, are for the UK as a whole, and not just Northern Ireland. Here the figures might lag a little, but the same trends are apparent - falling church attendance and a more relaxed attitude on social issues.

Yet our political leaders often assume that Northern Ireland is still a place apart which requires special legislation to protect a particular social ethos based on fundamentalist Christian values.

For instance, when the DUP debated devolution, one of the arguments put forward internally was that if power lay with Stormont then we would have been able to side step liberalising legislation like the introduction of civil partnerships for gays.

For a while battles were fought and lost around such issues as teaching creationism in state schools or foregrounding it in the Ulster Museum. The party listened to public opinion, but it still needs to beware a creeping fundamentalism which could lead to bad and unpopular policy decisions.

That is what may have happened on the issue of blood donations by gays. Edwin Poots, the Health Minister and a born again Christian himself, is at present considering the issue.

Since November gay men in Britain have been encouraged to give blood if they have not been sexually active for a year.

Here they are banned for life. The lifetime ban is justified by a desire to cut out the risk of HIV infections entering our blood banks.

Thankfully the chances of that happening are remote - they have been estimated at 1 in 4.4m donations by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).

To put things in perspective, the last actual instance of HIV being transmitted through the NHS blood supply was in 2002, before donated blood was routinely screened for it.

By far the greatest threat of blood-borne infection comes from people who have contacted Hepatitis B or HIV through heterosexual activity or intravenous drug use.

Anyway we have imported blood from England and Wales, where gays do donate, every month since November.

It looks as if a moral judgment on gays is creating a double standard in health policy. It is bad science which could leave our hospitals in short supply.

In Britain the Blood Transfusion Service has warned of a "perfect storm" which will lead to blood shortages this summer. Factors like the Olympics and a drop in donations are blamed.

We obviously need to maximise our local supply so as to reduce our reliance on outside help. It is mad to turn donors away based on anything but hard evidence.

Besides, a complete ban risks stigmatising gay men as inherently unclean.

Putting science before personal feeling would enhance Mr Poots' reputation as a minister as well as helping the DUP extend its support base further into the centre ground where it needs to be.

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