Update: After initially upholding the ban, today the FDA announced a reversal. Starting next year, the administration will change its policy to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood, provided they have not had sex with men for at least 12 months. While many see this move as a step toward progress, others argue that a one-year waiting period is still an offensive and unnecessary rule. Calling on the FDA to scrap the deferral in favor of a risk-based policy, GMHC says,"HIV is transmitted by what you do, not who you are."
This post was originally published on December 2, 2014.
This morning, the FDA's Blood Products Advisory Committee is convening to consider lifting the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. After 30 years of (what most consider) a baseless, discriminatory practice, this reassessment is considered a triumph — though, as some point out, it's hardly perfect. The new proposed policy would allow these men to donate blood — as long as they're celibate for at least a year.
The current MSM (men who have sex with men) policy has been in place since 1983, stating that any man who has had sexual contact with another man after 1977 is "deferred" from donation, for life. Female partners of MSMs are deferred for 12 months. The deferrals were seen as a necessary precaution during the early stages of the HIV epidemic, when little was known about the virus except that it appeared to target the gay male population. Blood screening technology wasn't yet capable of accurately detecting HIV, and as both panic and infection spread, no one balked at the FDA's blood donor restrictions.
"But what was reasonable 30 years ago is now unjustifiable," says The New York Times, in a November 27 piece by The Editorial Board. Even the new policy, the writers claim, "is out of step with medical research. It stigmatizes gay men and unnecessarily limits the pool of possible blood donors." They point out that even a one-year deferral for all gay and bisexual men is illogical and still denotes discrimination against the group as a whole. "Why should a married gay man who always uses condoms be treated the same as a single gay man who never uses them?" the Times asks.
Still, most LGBTQ activists see this proposed change as a great success. Ryan James Yezak is the founder of National Gay Blood Drive, an organization working to lift the ban. "After seeing what a difficult and complex process it is to make any change to the policy, we're very enthusiastic about this big first step in the right direction," he tells Mother Jones. "However, it is only a first step in a series of steps, hopefully."
In September, the U.S. faced one of the worst blood shortages in recent history. That same month, a study out of The Williams Institute reported that if the ban on gay donors were lifted — even with a one-year deferral period — blood supplies would likely increase by 317,000 pints per year. Several other countries, including Japan, Britain, and Australia, now have a one-year deferral protocol in place. We, too, have the technology and the evidence to support such a protocol. So, asks Yezak, "why are we so far behind?"