Friday, gay men plan to show up at 53 sites across the country to donate blood, knowing their offer will be rejected. The “Gay Blood Drive” aims to protest a federal ban that bars men who have sex with men from donating blood.
The ban was put into place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1977 and is implemented on an honor system. Potential donors fill out a questionnaire asking about certain health conditions and behaviors. People who identify as men who have sex with men are rejected as donors, as are individuals who say they have used intravenous drugs, worked as prostitutes, or traveled to countries with high risks of malaria or Mad Cow Disease.
Advocates argue that while including men who have sex with men in the ban may have made sense at one point, especially at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, advances in testing blood make such a widespread restriction unnecessary.The lead organizer of the blood drive, Ryan James Yezak, who is making a documentary film about discrimination based on sexual orientation, explained to CNN, “This ban is medically unwarranted, and this drive is the only way we can motion for change. The gay community shouldn’t be written off as diseased.”
Many medical professionals agree that the rule is outdated. Dr. Emily Blodget, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southern California, told USA Today, “Now we’ve seen, with the testing that we have today, that the blood pool has shown to be very safe without having to go through this regulation. To be honest [HIV infection] could happen with anyone now. We need to be just as concerned with heterosexuals as homosexuals.”
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The American Medical Association voted last month to oppose the ban. The group believes that the rules should reflect individual risks in donors, not simply their sexual behavior, since a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship with another man for over 20 years is likely to be at much less risk for having HIV than, for instance, a heterosexual woman who has had over a dozen partners in the last year.
One of the local protests taking place Friday was organized by Project Primary Health Care in Des Moines. The group plans to park a recreational vehicle outside of LiveServe Blood Center in the city and provide rapid HIV tests to anyone who wishes to donate blood. Gay men who test negative will be given their results to take to the blood center and then told to fill out the questionnaire honestly. The organizers hope that the stark reality of rejecting perfectly healthy blood will call attention to how outdated this rule is.
LiveServe is sympathetic to the protestors but says its hands are tied. Beth Phillips, a spokesperson for the blood bank, said in a statement, “LifeServe Blood Center is not and has never been concerned with the sexual orientation of our blood donors and believes all donors and potential donors should be treated with fairness, equality and respect, and that accurate donor history and medically supported donor deferral criteria are critical to the continued safety of blood transfusion. However, FDA requirements are mandatory for licensed blood collection facilities so there is no latitude to change this deferral until the FDA revises its regulation.”
The American Red Cross, which runs numerous blood collection facilities across the country, released a statement asking protesters to stay out of its offices so they don’t burden Red Cross staff.
FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky said in an email to USA Today that the agency is open to the possibility of change: “FDA remains willing to consider new approaches to donor screening and testing. If those approaches can assure that blood recipients are not placed at an increased risk of HIV or other transfusion transmitted diseases, FDA will consider a change to its current policy.”
Liscinsky did, however, defend the current rule, pointing out in her email that although men who have sex with men represented only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, in 2010 they accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections.