Push Continues to Lift Gay Blood Ban
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and more than 40 other congressional leaders are continuing a push to get the government to revise its lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men (MSMs). Sen. Kerry has urged reform of the policy several times in recent months.
Under the current Food and Drug Administration policy, the American Red Cross and other blood collection services are not allowed to accept blood from gay men or men who have had sex with another man since 1977. The lifetime ban also applies to current or former intravenous drug users, people who have had certain types of cancer or other diseases, and people who have lived in certain countries during specified periods of time during which they may have contracted communicable diseases.
In the case of HIV-tainted blood, critics argue that modern testing virtually eliminates any risk. Proponents of retaining the blood ban point out that there is a window of around two weeks after infection during which testing won’t detect the virus in donated blood. But critics also point out that the current ban relies on donors telling the truth about their sexual history--a fact that means that all donated blood is screened regardless.
Critics also note that HIV is also spread through heterosexual contact, but straight people are not similarly banned. Heterosexuals who have had sex with HIV-positive partners or with prostitutes are required to wait for 12 months before giving blood, however, a requirement that advocates for dropping the ban say would be also be adequate in the case of gay men.
A press release from Sen. Kerry’s office noted that the ban Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is scheduled to have a hearing on the matter June 10 and 11.
"It’s a very positive step that HHS is meeting this week to reconsider the lifetime ban on gay Americans donating blood," said Sen. Kerry. "The medical and scientific communities have been crystal clear that there is no longer any scientific evidence to warrant this policy." Added Kerry, "I’ve been working closely with members from both chambers, and we look forward to hearing HHS’s recommendations and working with the Administration to ensure that an outdated policy is brought into line with the world we live in today."
When the FDA’s gay blood ban was begun in 1985, HIV was much less prevalent in the heterosexual population than it is now and testing methods much less sensitive. Though the risk of tainted blood getting through screening is non-zero, health experts say that the chances are remote that donated blood will transmit HIV. At the same time, lifting the lifetime ban will make millions of potential donors available for blood drives--as well as people who could give blood under the current policy, but who do not because they feel that the lifetime ban on gay men is discriminatory.
A June 9 letter to the chair of the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability from Sen. Kerry and Rep. Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, was co-signed by thirty-three representatives and nine senators. "We join with medical experts at the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, AABB, and the American Medical Association, among others, in calling for a change in policy that better reflects the science of high risk behavior for HIV," the letter read. "The time has clearly come to review and modify this policy to strengthen the safety of the blood supply and remove any needless discriminatory rules from the process.
"In the wake of the major blood donor organizations stating that the lifetime ban on MSM blood donors is ’medically and scientifically unwarranted,’ we urge you to utilize the most up to date and comprehensive medical and scientific data regarding high risk behaviors in your considerations," the letter added. "In order to improve the integrity of the blood supply, we believe it is imperative that all high risk behaviors be appropriately targeted in the screening process and that similar deferral periods are established for similar risks.
"As the policy currently stands, a number of potential oversights and medically unjustifiable double standards seem apparent," continued the letter. "For instance, there is no prescribed consideration of safer sex practices, individuals who routinely practice unsafe heterosexual sex face no deferral period at all while monogamous and married homosexual partners who practice safe sex are banned for life. In fact, a woman who has sexual relations with an HIV positive male is deferred for one year, while a man who has had sexual relations with another man, even a monogamous partner, is deferred for life.
"Even individuals who have paid prostitutes for heterosexual sex face a deferral period of one year while gay men face a lifetime ban," the letter notes. "These do not strike us as scientifically sound conclusions."
"Science, technology, and education have advanced since the inception of this policy, and it’s time that it, too, evolved," Rep. Quigley said in a press release. "By adjusting our restrictions on blood donation, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to equality and offer those in need of life-saving blood transfusions much-needed help."
"Since 1985, when the misguided policy barring gay men from blood donation was adopted, we have come leaps and bounds as a society in our awareness of discrimination against the LGBT community, of HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted, and of safe blood screening and transfusion," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, said. "Our society and its laws must move beyond the offensive and incorrect stereotype that automatically links gay men to risky sexual practices and, therefore, to HIV/AIDS. If we are serious about addressing the national blood shortage, then we must repeal the FDA’s ban on gay blood donors now."
"We have chronic shortages of blood donations in this country, yet the FDA continues to cling to an outdated policy that prevents hundreds of thousands of donations from reaching those in need every year," Rep. Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, said. "Overturning this antiquated ban isn’t just a step in the right direction for equality--it’s a commonsense move that will save lives."
"Advocates invested in any change of such a policy report a perceived disconnect between the positions of leading gay rights and hemophilia representatives. We reject this notion," New York-based advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) said in a press release. "The communities have more in common than current discourse reflects. Both gay men and people with hemophilia have been disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic. Critical advancements in HIV prevention, treatment, and research can be linked directly to the years of successful advocacy by both communities. For most of the past quarter century, these two communities have worked toward shared goals, including caring for people living with HIV and preventing the virus’s spread."
The release listed a number of organizations that "continue to share a strong commitment to the safety of our nation’s blood supply and it is with this in mind that we urge the ACBSA to recommend any scientific research that is necessary to allow for the thoughtful consideration of alternative policies regarding donor deferral." Among them were the AIDS Action Council, amFAR, the Hemophilia Federation of America, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Hemophilia Foundation, and the World Federation of Hemophilia.
"We’re asking the FDA to look at alternative policies [that also] protect the safety of the blood supply," GMHC managing director Sean Cahill told MSNBC in a June 10 article. The Red Cross also advocates for the lifetime ban to be abolished, with the yearlong waiting period applied equally to gays and straights, the article noted.
But some say that the risk--however remote--is still reason enough to keep the ban in place. A May 27 CNN article cited Dr. Jay Brooks of the University of Texas Science Center. Brooks favors equality before the law for gays, including family parity and military service, but from a purely scientific perspective, he said, the ban is necessary. "The interest of the recipient is greater than any donor," Brooks told CNN. "I’d hate to tell the one person who got HIV through a blood transfusion, ’Sorry, we changed the regulation.’ "
Moreover, said Brooks, "I do not see this being a gay rights issue." Added Brooks, who is a professor of pathology, "Any group that’s epidemiologically at risk of making blood unsafe, it’s unfortunate [but i]t’s a matter of epidemiology."
Concerns on both sides of the debate may eventually have to bow to the numbers. A May 26 Scientific American article noted that the rules for blood donation are so strict that only 38% of Americans are allowed under FDA rules to offer their blood--and the number of the eligible who actually do donate is far less: a mere 8%. Those relatively few individuals have to meet a pressing need; Scientific American said that 38,000 transfusions are needed each day.
Still, a revision of the policy around gay men as prospective blood donors has been long in coming: the FDA has reviewed its regulations around the subject twice in recent years, without making any changes