Though many remain unaware, any American man who has had sex with another man – even once since 1977 — is banned for life from giving blood. Since I also have sex with women, my female sexual partners are banned for a year from the time of their last sexual encounter with me. Unfortunately, despite pressure from activists and medical experts, the ban continues into the future.
On July 12, 2013, I was one of many gay and queer men in dozens of cities nationwide who participated in the National Gay Blood Drive. Actions like this convinced the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability to hear presentations about the ban. From the Washington Times:
On Thursday, members of the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability will hear seven presentations on the MSM blood-donor issue.
In 2010, the advisory group agreed that the ban on MSM blood donations was ‘suboptimal’ but kept it in place pending additional research to ‘create a road map forward,’ as one panelist said.
This week’s presentations will provide updates about the blood-donor questionnaire, ‘quarantined’ blood units and related studies designed to help craft a new MSM policy.
The FDA established the policy in 1985 after public health officials realized that thousands of hemophiliacs were receiving — and dying from — transfusions of HIV/AIDS-infected blood. Among the most famous victims: tennis star Arthur Ashe, believed to have received the disease from a transfusion during a coronary bypass operation.
The ban dates back to the earliest, scariest days of the AIDS epidemic, when the disease was poorly understood and rigorous testing procedures were not possible. More sensible alternatives have even been suggested. Some college students recently suggested this alternative (but see below for another proposed by German doctors):
‘This policy is discriminatory and inadequate,’ said a petition drive at WhiteHouse.gov started in early November by students at the University of Michigan.
The students’ solution is to change the questionnaire to ask prospective blood donors, ‘Have you had unprotected sexual contact with a new partner in the past 12 weeks?’
A ‘yes’ answer would trigger a deferral ‘based on the window period of HIV,’ the petition said. ‘This change avoids discrimination and addresses risky behaviors that presently go overlooked. All individuals should be eligible to donate if they otherwise pass all of the FDA’s requirements, including a disease-free status,’ the petition said.
Many gay men practice rigorous safer sex and sexually transmitted disease testing regimens, or engage in extended or lifelong monogamy. Some straight people engage in high-risk, unprotected sexual behavior. The lifetime nature of the ban seems extreme as well, excluding even those who engaged in a single act of same sex experimentation that may now be decades in the past.
But despite a similar ruling in 2010, the Committee deferred any decision on the ban pending more research. From Watermark:
But instead of suggesting the removal of the ban, members voted late Thursday to recommend funding continued research and establishing a Transfusion-Transmissible Infections Monitoring System.
The decision was a blow to advocates who have been pressing to overturn the 1985 FDA decision they say stigmatizes gay men and ignores advances in treatment and detection in the decades since.
‘It is inexcusable to hide behind statistics that highlight a percentage of gay men who do participate in risky behavior… and then to ignore the sexual behavior of everyone else,’ said Brett Donnelly, co-founder of Banned4Life, a Central Florida-based not-for-profit dedicated to lifting the ban. ‘This policy is not just discriminatory, but it puts every American who needs blood transfusions at risk.’
Bans on gay blood are by no means universal. Wikipedia has a country-by-country breakdown of policies on blood donation. Gay Star News reports that the German Medical Association is actively campaigning to overturn the ban:
The German Medical Association has said it would aim to do everything ‘within its means’ to remove the ban.
A Europe-wide ban prevents all men who regularly have sex with men to donate blood.
While countries like the UK and Sweden allow gay and bisexual men to donate if they have not had sex in a year, other European countries like Germany rule them out indefinitely.
This is because MSM are deemed to fall into the ‘high risk’ category of potential HIV risk.
The German Medical Association argue there is no reason why gay and bisexual men should not be able to donate.
Allowing singles who have not had sex for a year, or couples who have been in a monogamous relationship for at least five years, could potentially boost the much-needed blood banks they say.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland a health minister went to court to keep the reasons for their ban a secret. From The Guardian:
Northern Ireland‘s health minister has won the right to withhold the legal reasons why he continues to ban gay men from donating blood in the province.
The Democratic Unionist minister Edwin Poots and Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, have won an information rights tribunal that allows them to keep the information secret.
Gay rights campaigners have condemned the continued secrecy surrounding the legal advice the minister has received relating to the gay blood donation ban.
I wonder if a clever statistician could work out how many O- blood donors have been prevented from giving blood worldwide because of these bans?
Photo by Drink Hoist released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.