Opinion » Commentaries

Bad blood

The FDA's blood donation restrictions are a judgment of social value



The term "season of giving" means different things to different people. To some, it's an excuse to purchase presents for friends and family. For others, it's an opportunity to lend a hand to less-privileged segments of the population. A small percentage of the population chooses to instead lend a vein, and judging by the sudden barrage of press releases from United Blood Services, the season of giving can cause a critical shortage of blood. But what happens when you offer someone a gift, only to have that gift rejected?

There are many reasons that blood banks turn away potential donors. Weighing less than 110 pounds can get you turned away. Traveling to certain regions of the world will also prevent you from donating blood. Being a man who has sex with other men (i.e. being gay or bisexual) also excludes you from the opportunity to save lives through donating blood. Perhaps phrasing the restriction as "men who have sex with other men" is intended to be less politically charged than using the phrase "gay" or "homosexual," but when you move beyond the semantics, this restriction prevents a socially and politically ostracized segment of the population from giving blood.

In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration no doubt driven by fear and ignorance regarding Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) decided to ban "men who have sex with other men" from donating blood. At that point, the FDA's decision may have been fair. AIDS was quickly destroying a generation of gay men, and nobody knew where it had come from or what they could do to stop it. However, a society's ability to survive has always been linked to its ability to evolve and adapt to new information. If nothing else, the past 23 years should have allowed us to step beyond the desire to link AIDS with homosexuality. The FDA's outdated blood donation policy spreads misinformation about AIDS by implying that the link between homosexuality and AIDS is disproportionately high.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, male-to-male sexual contact was responsible for 17,691 new cases of AIDS in the United States in 2004. The number of new Americans infected with AIDS through heterosexual contact in 2004? 13,128. Out of every demographic, African Americans account for the highest number of new cases of AIDS contracted in 2004. An estimated 20,965 African Americans were infected accounting for half of the new AIDS cases that year despite the fact that they represent a mere 7.5 percent of the population. Does this mean that the FDA will consider banning African Americans from donating blood? Probably not. That would be racist, and, given this country's painfully racist past, most people go out of their way to avoid being labeled as such (former Seinfeld stars excluded). Why don't we have the same collective fear of being labeled homophobic?

Scott Edward, donor recruitment director for United Blood Services Central Coast, said that only 3.5 percent of the population attempts to donate blood. Of that small number, 18 percent of would-be donors are turned away. On the Central Coast, a huge number of people are not allowed to donate because they have traveled to countries where they might have acquired an infection or disease. But being turned away because you have the resources to travel isn't quite the same thing as not being allowed to donate blood because you're gay, is it? We live in a society that rewards people who have the finances and initiative to travel. They receive respect. For men who are gay, not being allowed to donate blood is just another method of establishing social valuelessness. No sacrificing your life for this country, because the Army doesn't want you. No establishing a nuclear unit, which, like it or not, is at the core of American culture and values. And certainly no donating blood to someone who might die without your sacrifice.

United Blood Services Central Coast does occasionally receive criticism from people who consider the restriction policy unfair, despite the fact that individual blood banks are not responsible for the policy and have to enforce whatever regulations the FDA creates. All blood banks do test their blood for various diseases and viruses after it's been donated, but the test for HIV has a window period of 11 days when the tests don't detect the virus. That said, labeling gay or bisexual behavior as high-risk is more a reflection of social values than a medical decision made without prejudice.

An excerpt from the FDA website, explaining the decision to exclude all men who have sex with other men from donating blood, states: "Although a potential individual donor may practice safe sex, persons who have participated in high-risk behaviors are, as a group, still considered to be at risk of transmitting HIV. Safe sex practices reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of transmission of AIDS." This means that a gay man who practices safe sex in a monogamous relationship is considered high-risk simply because he has sex with another man. And the stern reminder that safe sex practices do not eliminate the risk of transmitting AIDS might be a little more just if it affected people who engaged in heterosexual sex as well. Basically, the FDA is arguing that sexual contact between men is high-risk, failing to distinguish that there might be some variance in terms of the number of partners and safety precautions. To them, all gay sex is bad dangerous even.

Yes, some heterosexuals are prevented from donating blood. For example, having sex with a prostitute is also on the FDA's restriction list, but is it really fair to equate all sexual interaction between men with the illegal act of having sex with prostitutes? Why can't a responsible gay or bisexual man who practices safe sex be afforded the same rights as responsible heterosexuals who practice safe sex?

The FDA's refusal to alter a decision that is now 23 years old is unlikely to change any time soon, according to Edward, who said "it's incredibly difficult to get them to change their mind" because "they would rather err on the side of caution." However, during the late '90s, the FDA changed its policy restricting diabetics from donating blood, at least proving that it can bend when necessary. But are government bigwigs willing to even consider the fact that instead of making a decision based on cool reason and facts, they made a social condemnation based on prejudice?

So how badly do you want blood? Are you willing to overlook your prejudice and fear of one day receiving blood that is contaminated, not with HIV, but with "homosexual cooties"? And are we prepared to re-evaluate AIDS as something other than a "gay disease" and, instead of spreading misinformation, set about defeating a virus that destroys millions of lives across the world?

To encourage the FDA to reconsider its stance restricting homosexuals from donating blood, call 1-800-835-4709 or write to the Office of Communications/ CBER/OCTMA (HFM-40), Food and Drug Administration/ 1401 Rockville Pike, Suite 200 North/ Rockville, MD 20852.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at [email protected].

Add a comment