Last week, several Members of Congress called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to end the lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men (MSM). In a letter to the Secretary of HHS, the Members challenge the policy, noting its lack of scientific basis, negative impact on patients, and perpetuation of negative stereotypes against gay and bisexual men. The letter comes on the heels of recent activism in the form of a national “gay blood drive” and a policy statement from the American Medical Association opposing the ban.
The main longstanding challenge to the lifetime deferral policy for MSM blood donors is its lack of scientific basis. The absence of a non-discriminatory rationale becomes even clearer in light of significant advancements in medical technology and developments in blood screening and record-keeping since the donation ban was put in place 30 years ago. In fact, current blood screening tests are so effective that the probability of HIV transmission through blood transfusion is one in 1.5 million, a significant decrease from risk levels in the mid-1990s.
What’s more, the ban excludes a large donor base even while patients in need of donated blood are left to fear now-frequent blood shortages. Every day in the United States, 43,200 people — one every two seconds — need blood transfusions. Illustrating how harmful the exclusion of MSM donors is for these vulnerable patients, the Williams Institute estimates that lifting the donation ban could would increase the blood supply by 219,000 pints of blood, which could save over 650,000 lives annually. Policies that are based in science rather than stereotypes would not only align more closely with the state of modern medicine, but would also be in the best interest of patients.
At a fundamental civil rights level, the harm done by banning MSM from giving blood is not only an insult to science and patients who need donated blood, but it also perpetuates the poisonous legacy of federal policies rooted in fear-based responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly those directed at gay and bisexual men.
If there were any question that the ban is motivated by fear rather than by true assessment of risk, the treatment of similarly situated potential donors is instructive: Whereas MSM are permanently barred from donation if they have had sex with another man since 1977 even once, non-MSM donors who are also considered to be at high risk for HIV are often permitted to donate with little or no deferral period at all. In fact, a person who has heterosexual sexual contact with a person who has tested positive for HIV is only prohibited from donating blood for 12 months. The disparity between these two policies shows that true measures of risk are removed from the equation of who can give blood, and that the policy does nothing but bar a particular class of Americans from participating in a civic responsibility and community service solely on the basis of the sex of their sexual partner. That is the essence of discrimination.
Without question, it is essential that the safety and adequacy of the nation’s blood supply remain the top concern in setting donation policies. But excluding MSM from giving blood does not serve those purposes. The lifetime deferral policy rejects medical science, perpetuates homophobic attitudes that drive the HIV epidemic, and does a disservice to patients. It is encouraging that Members of Congress are bringing attention to this unjust ban and calling for an end to discriminatory donor screening policies.
The full letter can be read here.
Andrew Cray is a Policy Analyst for LGBT Progress.