The Food and Drug Administration instituted a blood donation policy beginning in 1983 barring men who have had sex with other men, aka MSM, from donating blood. This policy was recently amended last December, changing the lifetime donation ban for this group to a deferral period of a year since any sexual encounter with another man.
The FDA introduced the original policy during the height of AIDS fear in the U.S. Our understanding of this disease was not as clear as it is today, and the idea that this danger was seeping into our society’s bloodstream was truly terrifying, rightly causing some hysteria. I know we’ve all seen the movie “Philadelphia.” That is the period in our history where this discriminatory policy was wrought, and while the change to a yearlong ban instead of a lifetime one is indeed evidence of progress, it is certainly not progress enough.
The medical justification for this policy sounds reasonable at first brush. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gay and bisexual men accounted for 55 percent of the estimated number of persons diagnosed with AIDS among all adults and adolescents in the U.S. in 2013. The disease has a very high concentration amongst gay and bisexual men compared to other demographics. The larger percentage of MSM living with HIV, along with the fact that anal sex is the riskiest type of sex for getting or transmitting HIV, continually perpetuate this group’s struggle with the disease. The FDA has a responsibility for eliminating risk in blood donations, and this population certainly is more at risk for HIV.
But this is where the argument for even a yearlong prohibition on MSM blood donations falls apart. As much as my old neighbor with the big hair hates to hear this, it is not 1983 anymore. HIV testing has become exponentially quicker and more accurate in the immense medical progress since. According to a Dec. 23, 2014 New York Times article, titled, “F.D.A. Easing Ban on Gays, to Let Some Give Blood,” doctors can diagnose an HIV infections within nine to 11 days of exposure with nucleic acid tests. All blood donations have to be tested before being shipped for transfusion, as well.
This shows that this yearlong deferral is actually quite arbitrary. It is currently being based less on an actual calculation of risk and reward, but more on a “better discriminatory than dangerous” attitude when the choice can very well in fact be neither. In conflict with this fictitious dichotomy is another way to keep MSM blood donations safe rather than by demanding a year of abstinence before donation.
There is no reason to believe that the risk of blood donations from gay and bisexual men can’t be abated in the same manner as heterosexuals with multiple partners – a combination of screening and testing. A Dec. 23, 2014 Huffington Post article titled, “Why Even A 12-Month Ban on Blood Donations From Gay Men Makes No Sense,” stated that “The American Medical Association recommended that gay and bisexual men be evaluated individually, and that risk be assessed through behavior, not sexual orientation.”
There is the clear alternative to the newly modified policy, and it is better for our society. First of all, removing this capricious yearlong deferral increases the amount of heathy blood we have for medical treatment. According to a study conducted by the Williams Institute, thousands of men would be likely to donate blood but can’t under the 12-month deferral. No longer unnecessarily excluding these men would greatly help stabilize our nation’s blood supply.
Secondly, and more importantly, it would mean one more step towards lessening the harmful stigma that stubbornly persists about gay and bisexual men. On the CDC’s website, they assert that “Through its Act Against AIDS campaigns, CDC aims to provide MSM with effective and culturally appropriate messages about HIV prevention” including their campaign Start Talking. Stop HIV. The campaign encourages gay and bisexual men to communicate about testing and other HIV prevention issues.
Perhaps it would be easier for these men to communicate about these issues without arbitrary and shame-inducing policies that suggest that even MSM who are monogamous or practice safe sex are a significant risk to our country’s health.
As we move closer towards long overdue civil rights and acceptance of gay and bisexual communities, removal of this discriminatory policy is yet another step. In that same vein, why would we ever possibly want to take away this connection of humanity that our hearts can literally share? It is not 1983 anymore.
Jonathan Greig is a senior in anthropology.