For 25 years, gay men have been prohibited from donating blood. In a 1985 decision, during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that the good their blood might offer was outweighed by the risk it might carry the deadly autoimmune disease. Although the issue has been revisited several times over the years, a number of influential groups, including the American Red Cross, are now lending their voices to a chorus of those calling for a reversal of the blood ban.
The Ban on Gay Blood Donation
Blood transfusions and organ donations save countless lives every year. However, blood can also transmit any number of chronic and terminal diseases. Rigorous testing and oversight of the blood supply is vital to ensuring that the life-giving gift of a blood doesn’t turn into a life sentence.
For Americans living through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Ryan White served as the poster child for what happens when tainted blood is not screened out. A hemophiliac, White was 13 years old when he contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion. In response to his case and similar situations, the FDA banned blood donations by any man who has had sex with another man since 1977, the year HIV was believed to have originated.
At the time, HIV/AIDS was considered a ‘gay disease.’ It was poorly understood, and there was great confusion regarding how it was transmitted. Today, HIV/AIDS is recognized as a disease that can afflict both men and women, homosexual and heterosexual.
In addition, medical advances can detect the HIV virus within two weeks of infection. Currently, the FDA bans blood donations for one year from women who have had sex with an HIV positive man, but it bans men for life if they have had sex with another man even once since 1977.
Recent Federal Discussions on Gay Men’s Blood Donation
With the need for blood donations rising, the American Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks have joined with a number of civil rights groups and doctors in calling for a reversal of the 25 year old ban. The groups argue that the ban is discriminatory and based upon fear instead of facts.
According to a study from the UCLA School of Law, allowing gay men to donate blood would add an estimated 219,000 pints annually to the nation’s blood supply. In addition, it would provide 903 organs for donation each year. The American Red Cross recommends that the FDA impose a requirement for one year of abstinence from gay and bisexual men before donation which would result in 90,000 pints of blood annually.
Critics note that these donations would be just a drop in the bucket of the 15 million pints the Red Cross collects annually. In addition, supporters of the ban argue that blood from gay men continues to pose a greater risk for HIV contamination than other segments of the population. While testing has improved dramatically in recent years, no screening process is 100 percent accurate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that although men having sex with men (MSM) constitute only 2 percent of the population, their HIV infection rates are 44 times that of other men and 40 times greater than the infection rates for women. MSM also account for almost half of all new HIV infections and are the only risk group with annually increasing incidences of HIV.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently convened a committee to consider whether the ban on blood donations from gay men should be lifted. The Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability met in early June 2010, took testimony and then voted 9-6 in support of a continuation of the ban. The matter now goes to the FDA which makes the final decision.
Activists blast continued ban on gay blood donors.Philadelphia Daily News. June 12, 2010
Victoria Colliver. Feds take new look at gay-blood donor ban. The San Francisco Chronicle. June 10, 2010
HIV in the United States: An Overview. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 2010