Why the FDA Bans Gays From Donating Blood—Despite All Medical Evidence

Other modernized countries have gotten rid of outright bans, so why not the U.S.?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Motivated to donate blood after a sick friend with a rare blood type put out a plea, Blake Lynch tried to help but ended up walking out of a clinic, embarrassed.

After asking if he'd ever prostituted himself for money or drugs, the clinic's survey asked, “[Have you] had sexual contact with another male, even once?”

As a gay man, he had.

In 1983, the FDA began banning men who have had sex with other men at any time since 1977 (believed to be the year the AIDS epidemic began in the United States), from donating blood.

Lynch found the long-established rule, previously unknown to him, staggering.

“This policy thinks that I’m this dirty individual who is HIV positive, and that’s not true,” he said.

It wasn't the first time Lynch had faced harsh rebuke for his sexual identity. During his teenage years, he was sent to Exodus International, a group that provided therapy to turn gay Christians into heterosexuals.

“It never really worked for me, and I didn't want it to work,” Lynch said.

At 22, the fed-up nursing student started a petition to overturn the FDA policy through the Banned4Life project, and he has been organizing blood drives for the past year. The events encourage eligible donors to give blood in place of gay men while educating them about the ban.

When it comes to donation restrictions, not much has changed since the U.S. Public Health Service warned that HIV, a big mystery in the 1980s, was transmitted through blood.

In 1990, at least 50,000 college students, factory workers, and families marched in New York City to protest the FDA’s announcement that Haitians were banned from donating blood. The government's argument was bolstered by data that AIDS was primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex in Haiti, which made it harder to identify high-risk individuals. The agency was soon forced to acknowledge that the policy, an effort to simplify donor exclusions, was “not subjected to close scientific scrutiny.” The FDA retracted the ban in less than a year.

Today, many countries have donor restrictions similar to those of the U.S., but because of recent medical evidence that it could no longer be justified, the ban has been lifted in Canada, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Japan, and other countries. Instead, these countries have imposed a deferment window between having sex with other men and donating blood. In the United Kingdom, where the deferment period is one year, there has been no reported HIV infection through blood transfusion since 2002. The FDA estimates that in the U.S., the risk of contracting HIV from a unit of blood is one in 2 million.

Despite several reexaminations over the last 15 years, American officials have kept the policy. The American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, and Advancing Transfusion and Cellular Therapies Worldwide stated in a joint release in 2006 “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted.” The American Medical Association, likewise, finds it outdated. And a Slate article, citing that HIV infection rates in African Americans is eight to nine times that of whites, asks, “If it’s OK to reject blood from gay men, what about blacks?”

Even a bipartisan group of Congress members, divided on so many issues, has pushed against the ban, signing a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying: “Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages. Further, the existing lifetime ban continues to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes against gay and bisexual men, and fosters an atmosphere that promotes discrimination and discourages individuals from seeking HIV testing and treatment services.”

The ban's flaw lies in its giving more weight to sexual orientation than to sexual behavior.

“It doesn’t once ask donors how many sexual partners they’ve had and if they’ve practiced safe sex," said Lynch, describing what heterosexual donors are typically asked. "Those are the questions that need to be asked, instead of ‘Am I male who’s had sex with another male?’ ”

In response to criticism, FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky told The New Yorker, “Although scientific evidence has not yet demonstrated that blood donated by MSM or a subgroup of these potential donors does not have a substantially increased rate of HIV infection compared to currently accepted blood donors, FDA remains willing to consider new approaches to donor screening and testing.”

At Banned4Life’s most recent event at a food co-op in San Francisco, more than 50 people donated blood, and 2,000 signatures were collected to support the project’s petition. But why now?

“Gay marriage was huge this year, athletes coming out, even with the Olympics in Sochi,” Lynch said. “It’s so important to get this policy changed now because of all the progress of the LGBT rights movement—to let people know that this is going on. So we can finally get it changed.”