Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Problematic exclusivity at blood drive – Los Angeles Loyolan.
As I walked into the Fall 2011 Blood Drive on campus this past week, I began to worry about passing out. I’m not usually faint of heart, but I am a bit weary of overtly descriptive questions about blood and the human body. The sight of blood doesn’t mean a thing, but as early as fourth grade, when discussing the process of mummification, it’s the description that makes me light-headed.
Going through the questionnaire, I felt weaker and weaker with every passing question about needles and blood – are so many questions about whether I’ve had contact with someone who uses needles necessary? Because I’m about ready to faint where I stand after the first three – but I snapped back to attention when I read one of the questions in the “Have you ever” section. The question asked whether or not I had ever had sexual contact with another male.
I turned to my friend and asked, “Does being gay or bisexual automatically disqualify you from giving blood?”
He looked at me like I had been in a coma for 10 years and asked what an iPod was. “Yeah, you didn’t know that?”
Suffice it to say I was blithely unaware of such a policy, and I was rendered slightly nauseous by the idea of it. I wanted to get angry, but frankly, I was more dumbfounded and uncomfortable that such a policy still exists in 2011.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the policy on blood donations from men who have sex with other men (abbreviated as MSM) is fairly straightforward: Any man who has had any sexual contact with another man since 1977 is banned from giving blood because he is supposedly “at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B, and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion.” The FDA backs up this policy with statistics of how men who have sex with other men are “the largest single group of blood donors who are found HIV positive by blood donor testing.” Of course, there are no statistics on exactly when the sample for this result was taken – for all the readers of this policy know, the sample could have been taken from 1987 during the height of the AIDS scare.
The policy was originally instituted in 1983, when AIDS was very new and very much a prevalent threat in the LGBT community. At the time, blood tests were much less accurate and more likely to miss infections. Today, according to a CBS News commentary section called “Lift Ban on Gays Donating Blood,” “donated blood must undergo two different, highly accurate tests that make the risk of tainted blood entering the blood supply virtually zero.”
While the FDA makes the case on its website explaining the policy that detecting HIV is made more difficult in the “window period” between infection and detection of HIV, there is also no description of exactly how long said window period is – not to mention that the webpage describing the policy hasn’t been updated in over two years. Two years is a long time in the scientific community – the FDA might be smart to freshen up the page a little more frequently.
The continued existence of the policy doesn’t seem to have any basis in modern science, instead it appears to be founded in old concerns and, more disconcertingly, a lack of faith in the blood testing that has been clearly established to be safe and thorough. According to a BBC News article published on September 8, 2011, “Gay Men Blood Donor Ban to be Lifted,” the United Kingdom’s government overturned its lifelong ban on MSM donating blood last month, updating the policy to a one-year deferral period. Considering the FDA’s primary concern seems to be on this window period of indeterminate length, wouldn’t such a policy also work in this country? Or is the U.S. government simply worried that our medical science isn’t as sound as that of the U.K.?
According to a New York Times article pubslihed on August 2, 2011 “Gay Men Condemn Blood Ban as Biased,” 18 senators, including John Kerry, attempted to get the ban revoked last year by writing an open letter to the FDA. Considering every pint of blood can save up to three lives, it’s no wonder that blood banks are irritated by the idea of having to turn away men simply because of their sexuality. There are likely plenty of patients waiting for blood transfusions in the world who would happily take a gay, bisexual, or bicurious man’s blood as well.
While the policy preventing men who have sex with other men was a fair response to a national epidemic in the ’80s, there is simply no evidence that such a ban is still relevant in today’s world. It is an archaic rule, and one that fails to make me angry – merely, incredibly disappointed in the United States’ stagnancy on this issue.
I’m hopeful that, thanks to activists and senators like John Kerry, the ban will be lifted sometime in my lifetime. But that hope doesn’t make the policy’s continued existence any less horrifying. The ban isn’t just outdated. It is an insult to homosexual, bisexual and bicurious men everywhere who want to help through the donation of their blood. I’m insulted, but more than that, I’m tremendously disappointed.