Buried inside news pages in recent days was the happy announcement that the pool of American blood donors soon will expand.
The Food and Drug Administration has lifted its three-decades-old ban on gay and bisexual men so that they, too, may participate in this selfless act.
The need for blood donors is great. Every two seconds someone in the United States requires blood, often because of cancer or a car accident. Blood cannot be manufactured. It can come only from volunteers.
That’s why the FDA should be praised — and pushed to ease up even more.
A quick look at the fine print of the new ruling reveals that men who have had sex with another man within the past year still cannot donate. That means gay men who are married or who are in monogamous gay relationships likely will remain off the donor list forever, unless they choose celibacy.
Leaders in the gay community are trying to balance genuine gratitude for a well-intentioned FDA effort with frustration that the new policy isn’t much better than the old one.
“After 30 years, it’s a huge step forward,” said Andy Birkey, spokesman for the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP). “But for most gay men, this is still going to mean they can’t donate.”
The FDA, which regulates the country’s blood supply, issued the initial ban on gay men in 1983, when AIDS testing was in its infancy. Over the years, screening and testing methods have improved immensely, “to ensure that extra layer of blood safety,” said Memorial Blood Centers medical director Dr. Jed Gorlin.
Included are tests for infectious agents aside from HIV, such as hepatitis B and C, and syphilis. Those also require a one-year deferral, which health officials believe is a safe, albeit conservative, time frame.
“We are incredibly blessed by having the world’s safest blood supply, with incredibly strict rules,” Gorlin said. He noted that the recent FDA ruling, which matches policies of countries including Australia, Japan and Great Britain, “puts deferral for HIV in the same league as other measurable risks.”
Birkey countered that the deferral smacks of discrimination “and perpetuates the myth that HIV is somehow restricted to the gay community.” Plus, he noted, the window for detecting HIV has dropped from 56 days to about 11 days.
It’s not sexual orientation that increases the risk of HIV, Birkey said. It’s two specific risky behaviors: unprotected sex and sharing injection drug needles.
Birkey would much prefer to see “a far more comprehensive risk assessment that goes to behaviors people engage in, as opposed to one’s sexual identity.
“A heterosexual man could have unprotected sex with a woman whose HIV status he doesn’t know and still give blood,” Birkey said, “while a gay man who has protected sex with his husband would be deferred from giving blood.”
Ryan Yezak, the Los Angeles-based organizer of the first national gay blood drive in 2013, also supports a risk assessment focus.
“Our whole mission is to get sexual orientation out of the blood donation process altogether,” he said. “It’s not that tricky.”
With continued safeguarding of our blood supply, let’s hope the FDA won’t wait another 30 years to ease up further on its restrictions.
“Donating blood is an incredible social good,” Birkey said. “It can be really hurtful to not be able to participate in that social good in one’s workplace or community.”
Potential donors aren’t the only people cheated by shortsighted regulations. A recent study by the Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank researching gender issues, revealed little change in blood donations by gay men under the current one-year deferral.
But lift the ban completely and the number of pints donated by gay men to those in need would jump from approximately 185,000 annually to nearly 400,000.