Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bad Blood - Gay Donor Ban Continues

(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)

Despite calls from legislators to the contrary, a committee of the Department of Health and Human Services voted 9-6 last week to continue banning gay men from donating blood.

A repeal of the ban seemed a distinct possibility leading up to the vote, especially after a group of legislators, led by Massachusetts senator John Kerry and Illinois representative Mike Quigley, issued a statement calling for a change to the policy. Senator Kerry spoke before the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability, along with representatives of the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers. These groups called the policy “scientifically and medically unwarranted,” and in need of a change.

The current policy stems more from prejudice rather than scientific fact.

For those who don’t know, here’s the rule: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bars particular groups from giving blood, in this case in an attempt to limit the spread of the HIV virus. The FDA bans any man who has had sex with a man since 1977 from donating, regardless of their HIV status. The policy was formulated in the 1980s, as the HIV/AIDS crisis was developing the United States and solid scientific information on its spread was limited (back in the bad-old days where AIDS was falsely considered a “gay disease”).

It is now 2010, and we know that contracting HIV is not limited to gay men. The FDA allows straight men and women who have had sexual contact with an HIV-positive partner to give blood after a year-long waiting period, while a married, monogamous, HIV-negative gay couple would be forbidden for life.

That’s worth repeating: The FDA thinks just being gay is more likely to make someone contract HIV than actually having sex with an HIV-positive person would.

Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs a blood transfusion, according to the Red Cross. Yet current regulations prohibit gay men from donating blood based on decades-old stereotypes. Blood banks are in constant need of donors, but the FDA is blocking access to a potential donor pool against the advice of those on the front lines.

The committee did call the guidelines “suboptimal” and recommended changes based on high-risk and low-risk groups of gay men. Why such a discriminatory policy, lacking in a scientific justification, is allowed to exist at all is another question altogether.

By failing to use facts to evaluate blood donations in efforts to reduce the danger of folks becoming HIV+, the FDA gets a grade of F-.


  1. I'm not sure that I would give the FDA an F- for the hearing. A lot of progress came out of this hearing, and if you followed the trajectory of the hearing on the second day, it becomes clear that the committee was unhappy with the current policy, however the options for revision that were provided for them were less than ideal. The way the question was phrased about repeal was unclear and the 14-0 vote is a major step forward for the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability. Staff at HHS are now going to consider these recommendations, and it’s possible, though unlikely, that they could support a changed deferral process based on these recommendations from the committee. Metro Weekly provides a really nice summary of the hearings here-