Gay Men Still Denied Right to Donate Blood 29 Years After Policy Originally Passed
By Luis Gonzalez –
A nationwide policy passed into law in 1983 has caused blood and plasma donation centers to permanently defer any gay man who has been sexually active after 1977. Gay women are not affected by the current policy.
The policy is seen as an act of discrimination towards the gay community. Even the American Red Cross has stated the ban is “medically and scientifically unwarranted” and supports the move to a one-year deferral period on donations after male-to-male sex.
Science has changed dramatically since the policy was put into effect 29 years ago. Today, every blood sample undergoes more than 11 highly accurate tests that eliminate the possibility of tainted samples entering the nation’s blood and plasma supply.
Ironically, the city of Austin’s blood centers and hospitals have not met their desired levels for blood since mid-January. “We need about 200 donations each day to keep up with community demand and need,” says Cindy Rowe, public relations manager for the Blood Center of Central Texas. “We went to the media to urge people to donate and though the donations have now picked up it still is not enough.” Product was purchased from blood centers out of the area in order to maintain a desired level of stock on shelves.
In a time where blood supply is short yet needed, Rowe knows blood donors are turned away every day. “We follow strict guidelines set by the FDA,” Rowe says. “Every donor must answer 46 questions about their lifestyle. A potential male donor is permanently deferred if they answer yes to a question asking if they engage in sex with another man.” Using condoms or providing HIV testing documents showing a negative result does not change the center’s decision.
Many in Austin feel compelled to help those in need of a blood transfusion or suffering from a life-threatening illness. “I honestly feel like I am doing the right thing when I go in to donate,” says John Smith.* “It is a shame that I have to go in and lie, hide the fact that I am a sexually active yet healthy gay male,” I don’t think it is right. The policy is a product of its time. It is outdated and was discriminating from the very start.”
Allowing the 61,732 citizens of Austin or the 579,968 in the state of Texas who recognized themselves as gay in 2010 to donate blood could help solve for the city’s less than desired supply levels. If fact, a switch to a one-year waiting period policy could add an additional 89,000 pints to the nation’s supply annually, according to a UCLA School of Law study. “The need for blood donations is constant,” Rowe admits. “All blood types are important. We make sure that all donations are safe for the patients that are receiving.”
The science behind the 11 tests performed on each blood and plasma sample is enough evidence for John Smith to feel the restrictions are based more on homophobia than valid medical concerns. “Now that we have these blood tests, I don’t feel there is a need to discriminate against anyone,” Smith says. “The diseases they test for affect everyone, not only the gay community,”
In a statement on their official website, the FDA says they appreciate concerns about discrimination, but stand by a decision based on data and science, and not a donor’s sexual orientation.
In 2011, as part of Sen. John Kerry’s legislative fight to get the ban lifted in the United States, the Department of Human & Health Services identified four areas of study before the ban can be lifted. Kerry’s main goal is to have a safe blood supply and to put an end to the discriminating ban. According to The Blood Center of Central Texas, “If all donors gave four times a year, blood shortages would be a rare event. Everybody has it, everybody needs it, please donate.”
*For confidentiality purposes, this source wishes to remain unnamed.