FDA Considers Lifting Antiquated Ban On Blood Donations From Gay Men

In 1983, the FDA put a policy in place that forbids any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. The policy, which still stands today, was implemented at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The LGBT community was devastated by the virus, and gay men were at a higher statistical risk of contracting it despite the fact that any person, no matter their orientation or gender, could become infected. There were no reliable methods for screening blood donations for what was then often called “gay-related immune deficiency” (ugh), so the FDA opted to prevent gay men from contributing to the national blood supply altogether. People were dying left and right with no solution in sight, and the decision seemingly came from a panicked need to take any kind of preventative action within health officials’ realm of control. Still, at the time, it was prejudiced and hit the LGBT community with yet another socially acceptable form of discrimination. Today, this policy is downright egregious.

Beyond the fact that we have a significantly improved understanding of detecting and preventing HIV/AIDS than we did in 1983, the US now has intricate infection screening processes that every donated blood sample passes through, so the ban is pointless. The last few years have seen an increase in pressure on the FDA to lift the ban, and the agency’s advisory panel will conduct a two-day meeting on the subject beginning tomorrow. The Department of Health and Human Services, the American Medical Association, many members of Congress, the American Plasma Users Coalition, and countless other advocacy and human rights groups support either lifting or changing the policy.

The FDA acknowledges that the policy prevents healthy donors from helping the cause and shrinks the supply available to sick Americans. We see the fundraisers all the time — people need blood! Blood drives are even held at high schools to encourage young people to donate. Can you imagine being a gay high schooler who practices safe sex and is then turned away by health workers in front of your peers? That kind of societal attitude toward homosexuality creates a culture of shame and worthlessness. No kid needs to be taught that his blood is tainted just because of who he is. Very few voters oppose lifting the ban compared to other equality issues, like same sex marriage. Even bigots can agree on this one!

Other countries that once had similar bans have altered their policies to focus more on science rather than stereotypes. South Africa requires anyone who’s had sex with a new partner to wait six months before giving blood, regardless of gender or orientation. Italy assesses the risk of each donor on a case-by-case basis. These methods make much more scientific sense as the real health concern is whether a donor practices safe sex, and that factor has nothing to do with what gender they’re sleeping with. Australia, Japan and Britain only allow gay men to donate blood if they’ve been abstinent for a year, which still seems backward to me, but at least that’s a step forward from where the US currently stands.

Instead of completely doing away with the policy, many advocates in the US are pushing for the one-year deferral that several other countries implemented. While that’s still discriminatory — if all blood donations are screened anyway what does it matter who it came from? — it would be an epic improvement to the US’s current practice and lay the foundation to ultimately lift the ban altogether. With World AIDS Day being honored all over the globe today, there’s no better time to push for change. [Washington Post]

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