The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today announced
it would be changing its policy regarding blood donations by gay and bi men.
Since 1983, the FDA has prohibited donations of blood from a man who has had sex with another man at any point in his life. Now the FDA will only prohibit donations from men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months. It's estimated that the change will lift the nation's blood supply by as much as 4 percent.
The move was heralded by public health experts as long overdue; the U.K. and other countries have already made such a shift. With improved testing HIV techniques, maintaining a blanket ban on blood from all gay and bi men was counterproductive and deeply unfair. The policy stuck around for as long as it has more because of prejudice than science, as Jay Barth wrote in a column for the Times this January
In the early days of the AIDS crisis, when so little was known about the origins and transmission of HIV and when the health crisis was centered in the gay male community, limiting gay males' blood donation made public health sense. Many longtime donors stopped giving blood because out of fear they would come in contact with a contaminated needle. Even more problematic, those most dependent upon the nation's blood supply, such as hemophiliacs, were susceptible to the introduction of HIV into the system. One famous early victim of the tainted blood supply was Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion who became infected from a transfusion during heart surgery. So, a short-term ban on men who'd had sex with other men made sense to respond to this still-mysterious crisis.
However, fairly quickly, ways of ascertaining HIV status were developed, we became more knowledgeable about the how the virus was (and was not) spread, and it became clear that HIV/AIDS was not a crisis facing just the gay male community. Despite these changes, the lifetime ban on gay men stayed in place even as a strict regimen for testing all blood was established and it became clear that other groups in American society also had elevated rates of HIV transmission.
What now makes more sense, as last year's AMA statement emphasized, is to respond to the risky activity of individuals rather than on barring donations for life by an entire group of Americans. No matter one's sexual orientation, those who engage in risky behavior should be barred from donating blood for a period. (At present, those who are straight but have had sex with an HIV-positive opposite-sex partner or with a prostitute or who have used IV drugs are eligible to give blood as long as they wait a year.) Gay men who are monogamous or engage in safe activity should be encouraged to donate to enlarge the pool of donors and to remove one of the last vestiges of a once prevalent view that gay individuals are "sick" and an inherent risk to the broader community.
Of course, there's still the matter of the 12 month ban, which is the same period of restriction placed on blood donations from people who have had intercourse with someone known
to be infected with HIV. A gay man in a monogamous relationship is surely a lower infection risk than a straight person who has had recent sex with someone who tests HIV-positive.
As Mother Jones succinctly phrases it
: "Gay Men Will Soon Be Able to Give Blood—As Long As They Don't Have Gay Sex." Still — it's progress.