Since 1983, FDA has banned men from donating blood for life if they have had sex with another man, even just once, at any point from 1977 and on, Despite lacking scientific significance, the lifetime ban has remained in effect until this past December. However, organizations like the Red Cross have been pushing for the ban to be revisited since 2006. On December 23, 2014, the FDA announced that it would alter the 31-year old national policy banning males who engage in same sex intercourse from donating blood. The new proposed policy would now allow males who are gay or bi-sexual to donate blood so long as the potential donor has abstained from same-sex intercourse for at least 12 months.
Politicians, gay rights activists, and public health officials have spoken out against FDA’s new policy and some are calling the ban “harmful and offensive.” According to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), requiring gay and bi-sexual men to abstain from having sex with other men for a year ”is [still] a de facto lifetime ban.” GMHC went on to note that heterosexual men are not required to remain celibate for a year and therefore, the “step forward” that FDA is attempting to make is still overt discrimination.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), who led the charge for the government to end the lifetime ban, noted that although the new proposal was a step in the right direction, she “remain[s] concerned that [the new policy] does not achieve our goal of putting in place a policy that is based on sound science.” Baldwin noted, “[t]he Administration must continue to work toward implementing blood donation policies based on individual risk factors instead of singling out one group of people and turning away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages.”
Despite receiving criticism and concerns, the FDA’s new proposed policy garnered support as well. Steven W. Thrasher, for NPR’s Code Switch, a gay male who has written extensively about FDA’s lifetime blood ban, offered his support for the recently updated policy. Throughout Thrasher’s piece, he explained the technicalities and reasoning behind the ban, from his perspective, noting that because “the act of a man having sex with another man imposes a risk on his potential blood donation on the same level as taking IV drugs, having been incarcerated, or having had sex with someone who is an IV drug user or has been incarcerated, Thrasher is “okay” with the update on the ban.
Thrasher explained that there is a difference between “shaming gay men” and recognizing that the practice of homosexual male sex does have actual risks proven by various demographics. Thrasher cites statistics from the CDC, noting “the overall gay male population of the US is only 2%, according to the CDC, this group “accounted for three-fourths of all estimated new HIV infections annually from 2008 to 2010.” Thrasher said, “A one-year ban, however, would be based on the risk assessments of a practice — the practice of a man having sex with another man — and not unscientifically shaming gay men. This might sound like a fine difference. But it’s an important one.”
Others believe that the government should adopt the approach followed in Italy and Spain, where gay or bi-sexual men, engaging in sex with other men are allowed to donate blood so long as the donor is in a monogamous relationship and whose blood tests are safe. The “individualized risk assessment” approach appears to be successful in Italy, and according to a 2013 study, there is “no evidence of a significant impact on the human immunodeficiency virus epidemic in Italy.”
Whether you view the updated policy as a baby-step, a leap forward, or as no change at all, FDA’s recent announcement has undoubtedly reignited the conversation about blood donations polices and the still stigmatized health concerns of gay and bi-sexual men.