Outdated policy reflects ignorance

Originally published as an Op-Ed  piece for Cardinal Points, Plattsburgh State’s student newspaper.

I sat down outside of the Cardinal Lounge in the Angell College Center Tuesday to fill out the medical form required to donate blood. I knew the question was going to be there. I wasn’t avoiding it — it was the reason I was there. I wanted to see if it was really true. Would I really be turned away from donating blood if I wrote down that I had sex with another male?

It was hidden away on page three, section 34. “Have you ever had sexual contact with another male?” Even though I had always heard it was there, for some reason I was still shocked when I read it.

I felt my heart beating faster as I wrote a small black “x” under the word “yes.”

Five minutes later, I found myself outside the Cardinal Lounge again. I knew before I handed in the form I’d be rejected, but it still stung so bad. I felt a tightness in my chest like the wind had just been knocked out of me.

Even though I knew what would happen, I chose to fill out that medical form to put myself through the same embarrassment and disappointment of men before me who had been denied the opportunity to donate blood because of sexual history. It felt awful. For hours, it was all I could think about.

So why the ban? Because of a regulation from the United States Food and Drug Administration implemented in 1983 that remains in effect to this day. No blood donor agency such as hospitals or the Red Cross is allowed to accept blood if a male donor marks on his medical history form that he has ever been sexually involved with another man. Furthermore, this ban remains in effect for the rest of a person’s life.

The rest of — my life.

The reason given for this regulation is that it is believed  men who have had sexual contact with other men are at an increased exposure to HIV/AIDS. Initially, it would seem like a quick write-off to simply counter this point by noting that all blood is screened to the utmost of standards, regardless of what people write on their medical history forms. If the blood is tested and is safe, then there should be no problem, right?

The FDA regulation is not appropriate because of the wide range of behaviors the ban includes that don’t actually minimize the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS at all.

The reason gay men are seen as being at a higher risk is because of the exchange of blood that can occur during sexual intercourse. But the standards for what will ban a person from donating blood are set unjustifiably low.

Defined as “sexual contact,” there is not a shred of evidence that can prove any and all sexual contact between two men puts them at any greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Under the umbrella term of sexual contact are behaviors which pose no risk whatsoever to transmission of the virus.

Considering the fact that all donated blood is tested for diseases — keep in mind the ambiguous descriptions of behaviors the ban applies to — therefore the FDA’s argument has hardly a leg to stand on.

Even taking into account the fact that HIV/AIDS can take up to six months to show up in tests, why can’t there just be a waiting limit enforced? Obviously, someone could lie, but then again someone could lie now, anyway.

It’s simply a matter of adapting the current policy so it is still safe, while allowing the most possible safe blood to be donated.

Coincidentally, it’s arguable that this ban is actually causing more harm than good. I don’t know if this is news to you, but there is a significant blood shortage in hospitals across the country.

In an interview with ABC News last September, Red Cross President Bernadine Healy called the blood shortage “one of the worst ones that the Red Cross has seen.” I guess it’s a good thing that there are millions of people across the United States that the FDA has banned for life from donating their blood because of their sexual orientation. I can’t see how it could help anyway. Give me a break.

This outdated practice is causing surgeries to be abandoned, and it is putting people’s lives at risk. It doesn’t make sense to ban people for life from donating blood because of their assumed potential for a higher exposure to a virus that, if they even have to begin with, will show up in testing. Especially in the midst of a blood shortage.

Beyond the health and legal issues, banning someone from donating blood because of sexual orientation reinforces a long-standing and harmful social stigma that gay men are diseased social outcasts.

It’s a policy that, while it may have made sense during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, has no place in American society today. Any regulation that keeps clean, safe blood from being donated  is a regulation in need of change — now.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    For life? It is possible that the ban will be lifted.

    It is reported today that the similar ban in the UK will be lifted: http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/uk-ban-on-gay-male-blood-donors-lifted/story-e6frfku0-1226036838730

    Please note the slight irony: I cannot donate bllod in Switzerland because I lived for more than 6 months in the UK in the eighties; the ban is to protect agains Creutzfelt-Jacob (mad cow disease). (Note also that I am not scandalised by that ban.)

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