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Congressman Leads Fight Against FDA’s Gay Blood Ban: ‘Discrimination Without Any Basis In Science’

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID ZALUBOWSKI
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID ZALUBOWSKI

It’s not known exactly how many people were turned away from blood donation centers after the deadly mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday. But some were, thanks in part to a Food and Drug Administration rule that prohibits gay and bisexual men and transgender women from giving blood if they’ve had sex with a man in the past year.

The policy is controversial, but more than anything, it is unknown. After the shooting — in which a deranged man specifically targeted LGBT individuals — many members of the LGBT community reportedly didn’t realize they would be banned from donating blood. In fact, many members of Congress weren’t aware such a ban existed as well.

Some ignorance of the FDA’s policy is likely due to plain old confusion. Last year, LGBT advocates celebrated when the Obama administration lifted the FDA’s lifetime ban on gay and bisexual male blood donors. To casual observers, that policy change may have signaled that the gay blood ban was over. But the reality was that, while gay and bisexual men and transgender women were finally allowed to donate blood, they had to be essentially celibate to do so.

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The FDA justifies this policy by noting higher rates of HIV infections among men who have sex with men. But opponents say the ban is medically unnecessary — because all blood is tested after donation anyway — and discriminatory, since any person, gay or straight, could engage in risky behavior leading to HIV contraction.

In Congress, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) has been leading the fight to overturn the gay blood ban for years. And the fight has only intensified since Orlando. Shortly after expressing his condolences for the 49 victims, Polis — who is openly gay and chairs the LGBT Equality Caucus — took to his Twitter account to slam the FDA’s ban on gay male blood donors, calling it “morally bankrupt” and “dangerous.”

On Thursday, Polis told ThinkProgress that, in the wake of Orlando, he and other elected officials would intensify their push to get the Obama administration to overturn the gay blood ban. He and some of his colleagues are currently circulating a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, urging him to “swiftly” end the ban.

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“It perpetuates a fiction that gay people are different, that our blood isn’t as good as other people,” Polis said. “It is just another example of discrimination without any basis in science, without any nexus to blood safety.”

Here’s a transcript of Polis’s conversation with ThinkProgress about the FDA’s effective ban on gay blood donations, edited down for clarity and brevity:

ThinkProgress: Congress has a lot of things to talk about after the Orlando shooting. Gun control and how to deal with domestic terrorism are chief among them. Why should people be paying attention to blood donations?Rep. Jared Polis: This is particularly poignant, in that so many of the friends and family and spouses of victims of the Orlando killing weren’t able to donate blood to help. Like so many others, gay men around the country were moved to help. And given the nature of this tragedy, many gay men stepped up and wanted to help, only to find out — because it wasn’t widely known — that gay men aren’t allowed to donate blood.

It perpetuates a fiction that gay people are different, that our blood isn’t as good as other people. It’s just another example of discrimination without any basis in science, without any nexus to blood safety. It screens out the blood of gay people, and holds them to a different standard than straight people.

TP: The FDA said on Monday it did not have scientific evidence to support an end to the restriction. What do you say to that?Polis: They don’t have any scientific evidence that there should be a restriction, other than a restriction on behavior. At this point, the blood supply is less safe because they don’t screen for behavior. They could allow a straight person who has had multiple partners and unprotected sex to donate blood. This should be based on behavior, and should apply to gay and straight people alike.

TP: The FDA also said that blood supplies were adequate for the people in need after Orlando. I’ll read what they said: “We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it.”Polis: Yes, at this moment in time, of course. But right after the crisis, one of the Orlando blood banks said there was an urgent need for certain types of blood. (Editor’s note: Polis has O+ blood, one of the types the OneBlood foundation said was needed after the shooting. As a gay man, Polis is not allowed to donate.)

At any given time, our banks might be short of blood. There were a number of times in the last couple years where we’ve needed blood. There’s a regular need in our blood supply that often goes unmet.

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TP: Can you tell me about your efforts over the years to get the FDA to lift the ban? Polis: It’s been a very long haul working on it, and frankly I’m very disappointed it’s taking this long when, frankly, there’s no scientific evidence to support the ban. It holds straight people to a different standard than gay people. It requires celibacy for one year for gay people, and not straight people. It is ridiculous.

We’ve done at least 3 letters to the FDA, starting in 2009, then ones in 2010, 2013, and now, of course, we’re trying to get it across the finish line.

TP: Obviously Congress can’t do anything about the FDA ban — it’s in the president’s hands. President Obama is pretty progressive by most people’s standards. Has it surprised you that he hasn’t been with you on this?Polis: I would have liked to have seen this ended by now, but I’m still confident that this administration has been a science-based administration. And there’s no good science supporting the ban.

TP: Where do we go from here? And what can readers do if they want to see a change in policy?Polis: We have a letter circulating right now, a bipartisan letter, to the FDA commissioner. Many members are joining us in calling for the FDA to reverse this unscientific ban on gay blood, from both Democrats and Republicans.

[What others can do is] call and write the FDA. They’re in the driver’s seat and can change the policy. Hopefully, with the encouragement of Americans, they’ll do so.