Friday, April 18, 2008

Gay ban on blood donations

As I drive to or from work at the University of Vermont each day, I am reminded that there is an “urgent need for blood” by the local chapter of the Red Cross, which happens to have their building a block down from the campus. Years ago, these messages really got me concerned and would get me to the blood drives to donate blood. But then I found out about the ban on donations from gay men I have been boycotting the Red Cross ever since. Part of me feels bad about not helping the blood supply, but I feel the need for a boycott to put more pressure on the Red Cross and thus put pressure on the FDA to revisit their policy and stop denying donations based on sexual orientation rather than risky behavior.

The ban stems from 1983, when the FDA decided to protect the blood supply –and thus protect transplant patients- from the HIV virus. At the time, HIV/AIDS was a new epidemic, and the majority of cases in this country were gay men. We also didn’t have accurate HIV tests in place. The epidemic has changed dramatically since then. Worldwide, heterosexual (man to woman or vice versa) transmission of HIV/AIDS is the main way in which people contract HIV. In the U.S., the fastest-growing population infected with HIV is heterosexual women of color.[1] Not only is the “face” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic no longer gay men, but we have also now much more accurate HIV tests that can detect the virus in donated blood within 10 to 21 days of infection[2].

The way that the blood donation services screen out gay men is by asking each man if they have ever had sex, even once, with another man since 1977[3]. Those who say they have are permanently banned from donating. So even men who do not identify as gay but who have had sex with men get banned. What seems horribly troubling to me is that, nowadays, this is a ban based completely on sexual orientation, rather than risky behavior. Yes, unprotected anal sex is the “riskiest” of all sexual activities because of the nature of the cells in the anal region and how sensitive they are to small cuts & bleeding that normally happen during sex (and especially during “rough” sex). But plenty of heterosexual people engage in this activity as well. And we shouldn’t assume that all gay men engage in that activity anyway. Also, just because you are a gay man or a man who has sex with men, it doesn’t mean anything about the safety of your sexual practices (unprotected vs. protected sex) or about the number of partners you have, or about your risky behaviors in general. A heterosexual man or woman could easily have multiple partners and engage in risky sexual activities like unprotected anal or vaginal sex, therefore being more “at risk” for HIV than a gay man who practices safer sex and is monogamous. But the heterosexual man or woman would be able to donate blood and the gay man wouldn’t.

I hope that the FDA changes this policy soon because from an ethical and a medical standpoint it seems discriminatory. And I’m sure there are plenty of healthy, HIV-free gay men or men who have sex with men who would be more than happy to donate blood if they could, and plenty of people like me who would stop boycotting the blood banks if they changed the policy, thus easing this “urgent need” for blood donations.

[1] HIV InSite Website:

[2] CDC Website:

[3] FDA Website: Blood Donation Guidelines:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the FDA needs to get with the program with respect to donations from gay men. It's too easy a target to isolate gay men as being riskier than others in the public.

The rules for tissue donation have relaxed a little in that male-to-male sex isn't an automatic rule out any more (within the past five years still is, however).

We're not there yet, but it's a move in the right direction. Inasmuch as all blood is tested for HIV, HBV and syphilis, it seems these restrictions are catering to ill-informed opinions rather than hard science.