Nearly 125,000 people are on the national waiting list for lifesaving internal organs. Most of these individuals are waiting for kidneys; others are looking for a heart, a set of lungs, intestines, or a pancreas. The number doesn’t include the 1 million tissue transplants needed each year (such as corneas and heart valves), or Americans requiring blood transfusions. Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood, according to the American Red Cross.
Although the demand for donations is high, current regulations place outdated restrictions on a whole sector of healthy potential donors. What disqualifies them? They are men who have sex with men.
Arguing that being gay is not a legitimate reason to exclude these men from organ donation, a group of LGBT advocates and politicians are pushing for a change in federal regulations.
Ian Thompson is an ACLU legislative representative who works on policy issues affecting the LGBT community and people living with AIDS. He said that while donating blood or tissue is not a “constitutional right,” the federal government isn’t allowed to discriminate against donors based on sexual orientation.
“In other words, gay and bisexual men cannot constitutionally be singled out for differential treatment solely because of their sexual relationships,” Thompson wrote in an email. “Eligibility standards must reflect current scientific knowledge and must treat like risks alike.”
Right now, that isn’t happening. Although gay men are able to donate certain organs, they are first tested for HIV (as are all organ donors), and a notification is sent to the transplant program informing it that the organ it is receiving comes from a deceased man who had sex with other men in the past year.
This is the least exclusionary of the U.S. donation policies. To donate tissue, gay men must not have had sex with men for five years, and they face a lifetime ban on donating blood. Under the same regulations, a heterosexual man who pays for sex with a woman or knowingly has sex with an HIV-positive woman has to wait only one year before donating blood.
“Clearly that is not treating like risk alike,” said Thompson.
This policy was enacted in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis, but science has come a long way since then. Screening methods for HIV and AIDS have improved, and it is now common knowledge that the disease does not only affect the gay community. Today, more accurate information exists on how HIV and AIDS is contracted and spread.
In recent years, the U.K. has changed its blood donation policy for gay men from a lifetime ban to a one-year deferment. In Canada, men must wait five years after having sex with another man before they are eligible to donate blood.
But the U.S. continues to lag. In an effort to catch up, a group of more than 60 senators and members of Congress sent a letter last week to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expressing their concern over the “inherent unfairness and inconsistency” in the donation policies. The letter stated that the current policies “perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes” and “promote discrimination” while not adequately representing the advances made in science and HIV detection.
A leader in this effort is Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. She first became involved in the issue after receiving a letter from a gay constituent hoping to donate blood in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings.
"When a Massachusetts man told me he wanted to donate blood during the bombings but couldn't because of his sexual orientation, I dug deeper into this discriminatory ban, and I didn't like what I found,” Warren said in a statement last year. “Current policies are contrary to science. They promote discrimination and don't make the system any safer.”
Just last month, these controversial donation policies made headlines once again after federal guidelines barred 16-year-old A.J. Betts’ family from donating his eyes. The gay Iowa teen killed himself in July 2013, after constant ridicule and bullying. Months before he died, Betts decided to become an organ donor, so his heart, lungs, liver, and kidney went on to save lives.
“I was very happy to hear that a 14-year-old boy got his heart. He would have really liked that,” Betts’ mom, Sheryl Moore, told local news outlet KCCI.
But Betts’ eyes were rejected because current Food and Drug Administration regulations subject eyes and eye tissue to different standards than organs. Because Betts’ family did not know for certain if he’d had sex with a man in the past five years, his eye donation was denied.
“A.J.’s story is a particularly poignant example of the harms of our policies governing blood, tissue, and organ donation by [men who have sex with men],” stated the lawmakers’ letter.
Although it’s taken decades to see any progress, the ACLU's Thompson is hopeful that the country will finally start to see policy changes.
“You have an administration in place that’s committed to moving LGBT equality forward, and they’ve also done a lot in the area of HIV/AIDS,” he said.
The group of U.S. legislators have requested a response to their letter from the Department of Health and Human Services within 30 days. They’ve also asked for a written update on what the department has done to assess donation regulations, as well as an estimate of when possible policy changes will be announced publicly and take effect.