(CNSNews.com) - Homosexuals in South Africa can no longer be turned away from blood banks if they wish to donate blood, according to a new ruling which critics are blasting as "political correctness gone mad."
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has ruled that homosexual men have a constitutional right to donate blood and that they are no longer the group most at risk from HIV/AIDS infection.
In most countries, men who have had sex with other men in the last 20 years are prohibited from donating blood, even if they test negative for HIV.
But the HRC, tasked to uphold the human rights aspects of the world's most liberal constitution, said the category posing the greatest risk in South Africa was the early-20 age group, not homosexuals.
It ordered blood banks to change their policy immediately.
However, the South African Blood Transfusion Service will continue to uphold World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and turn away members of high risk groups such as homosexuals, its deputy director, Dr. Robert Crookes, told CNSNews.com Wednesday.
"There will be further discussion with the HRC, to present more medical and scientific data to them and to illustrate the information worldwide that men who have sex with men remain at risk for HIV infection," he said.
"We are fairly confident that they will understand the medical issues, and that reason will prevail."
Crookes said he was not aware of any country in the world - certainly not in the West - that would accept blood donations from risk groups like homosexuals.
While the HRC ruling upheld what it saw as homosexuals' right not to be discriminated against, he argued that the patient's right to receive safe blood was paramount.
The small, opposition African Christian Democratic Party agreed that the issue was a medical one, and had nothing to do with discrimination.
"We acknowledge that in Africa, AIDS is not essentially a homosexual disease," ACDP spokesman Keith Downs told CNSNews.com. "In Africa, by far the largest number of people infected are probably ethnic African females.
"But homosexuals represent a particular risk group because of the mechanics of their sexual intercourse."
Downs said barring homosexual blood donors was done "not on the basis of discrimination against homosexual behavior, but because they are a risk group. To overcome that on the basis of a human rights argument is inadvisable."
In a statement sent to CNSNews.com, the party said the decision was "a case of victory of 'political correctness' over common sense and sound medical decision-making."
It noted that blood banks refuse to accept blood from "all people, heterosexual and homosexual, who engage in risky behavior."
Faced by "limited funds and the high HIV transfer rate with risky sexual behavior such as anal intercourse and promiscuity, the Blood Transfusion Service should be allowed to make decisions for the best of the nation," the statement said.
"Are we prepared to let people die for the sake of being politically correct? The next thing we will have the Human Rights Commission fighting for the rights of prostitutes to donate blood."
The ACDP urged all South Africans "who engage in risky sexual behavior or who have partners who do so" not to give blood.
The HRC ruling followed a complaint by a Cape Town radio presenter, Andrew Barnes, who said he responded to an urgent call for blood last year.
Filling out a routine questionnaire, he checked the "yes" box when asked if he had ever had sex with a man. Asked to clarify, he told a nurse he had been involved in a steady same-sex relationship for a year.
When the blood bank refused to accept his donation, the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equity took up the matter with the HRC.
According to the latest available UN figures, 2.9 million of South Africa's 43 million people are "living with HIV/AIDS;" there are 420,000 AIDS cases in the country, and 36,000 people have died of the disease.
The UN statistics indicate that 60 percent of South African AIDS cases are transmitted during heterosexual contact, and just four percent during homosexual relations between men. Twenty-five percent of cases fall into the "unknown" category.
South Africa's constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination of any kind on the basis of sexual orientation.