New Secretary of State John Kerry has been an avid opponent of the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on blood donations from individuals categorized as MSM (men who have sex with other men), and his stance would seem to bode well for those who oppose such a discriminatory policy.
But the future of the ban is unclear, and it continues today after being upheld by the FDA in 2010.
In 1983, the FDA instated a MSM blood-donation ban, preventing all gay and bisexual men who have been sexually active since 1977 from donating blood for life. Enacted largely out of fear over the AIDS epidemic and spreading the disease, especially to hemophiliacs, this discriminatory ban is no longer necessary.
For one, blood donation tests are more accurate and thorough today, making it possible to identify red flags earlier and with greater consistency.
Moreover, banning a group of individuals, especially if they are completely healthy and HIV-free, is bigoted and unscientific. It makes sense to try and urge people who engage in risky activities to not be donors, but those individuals can be homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual; testing is the best weapon, not blanket bans.
The FDA’s policy of accepting blood donations from groups of equal, if not greater, risk of HIV infection while barring MSM highlights the policy’s arbitrary and unconstitutional construction.
The ban assumes that all gay men, and not heterosexual individuals, are inherently high-risk donors; people who engage in risky behavior, knowingly have sex with HIV-positive partners, engage in unsafe sex practices, visit prostitutes and use intravenous drugs face no sort of blanket exclusion like MSM do. There is no difference between a gay man and a straight man who engages in safe — or unsafe, for that matter — sexual activity. It does not make any sense, except as a matter of bias, to exclude one risk group completely and let others go.
In a letter to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, then Sen. Kerry stated, “ … healthy gay and bisexual men continue to be banned for life, while the FDA allows a man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman to give blood after waiting only one year. This double standard is inconsistent and indefensible. Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages.”
That last observation is particularly noteworthy, as the Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers urged the FDA in 2009 to lift the gay blood ban for fear that it will only exclude millions of potential donors.
A 2010 study by the UCLA Williams Institute estimated that if gay men who did not have sexual contact for the past 12 months were allowed to donate blood, more than 53,000 additional men would likely make more than 89,000 blood donations. A revised policy could help blood banks enormously, especially considering blood supply shortages are common, according to ABC News.
Lastly, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Scotland, Wales, Sweden and Japan, in some form, allow all MSM to donate blood, while the United States lags behind in blood donation regulations. Yet since 1983, HIV transmission has decreased; there is better awareness and prevention and better testing of blood and of possibly infected individuals.
Instead of a blanket demographic ban, if a donor participated in high-risk behavior, the FDA should require a waiting period before using the blood. Screening of donors should focus on sexual behavior, not orientation, as well as any regular use of hypodermic needles.
With modern medicine quickly advancing in preventing and curing HIV and AIDs, the FDA is falling behind with outdated policies that needlessly waste potential blood donations. A man should not have to choose between his sexuality and saving lives — but as long as the blood-donation ban on MSM exists, the choice remains.
Kevin Cheberenchick is a sophomore majoring in economics and mathematics.