These days, I find out about most events being held on campus through Facebook, and that is how I found out about the blood drive that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday. As I was clicking "yes" to attend, though, I noticed a comment from a fellow student: "Unfortunately for everyone who needs my blood, I'm gay. The [Food and Drug Administration] bars the Red Cross from accepting my blood." I was stunned and assumed that this was some kind of joke. I had to see if this student was being serious, and after poking around the American Red Cross website for blood donation eligibility requirements, I learned the shocking truth: He was right. The website states that any man who has had sexual contact with another man since 1977, even once, is forever banned from donating blood. At the same time, the site informed me that the nation is currently facing a severe shortage of blood. Why are otherwise healthy men prohibited from donating blood? What is the basis for this policy?
It turns out that the policy enacted not by the Red Cross, but by the FDA. The FDA initially banned men who have sex with men from giving blood in 1985 when the risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from transfusions was first recognized. At the time, the policy was considered the best way to keep the blood supply safe. The AIDS epidemic was new, the nation was gripped in panic and HIV testing was still in development. Today, the policy seems to be a discriminatory relic of an earlier era since donated blood is routinely screened for HIV and other infectious agents. The FDA employs multiple safeguards, including donor evaluations and computerized blood testing, to ensure that infected blood is not distributed.
The FDA has re-examined the ban over the years, but maintains that the restriction is necessary to keep the blood supply safe and untainted by HIV. Seventeen U.S. senators, including John Kerry, D-MA, wrote a letter to the FDA in August 2010 demanding that the agency change its donor policy. The letter unfortunately did not amount to anything as the government advisory board voted to uphold the restriction.
Donating blood is one of the most important and selfless acts that we can perform and it doesn't cost a penny to the donor. Close to 40,000 units are needed every day in America alone. That calculates to someone in this country – a cancer patient, a trauma patient – needing blood every two seconds. Lifting this ban would surely add additional pints of blood that are so desperately needed.
I am not gay, and I donated blood on Tuesday. I can't help thinking, though, of all the people who would like to make a difference if they could. I am sure that the majority of men who have sex with men are not infected with HIV and if the FDA is going to make such an issue of this, why can't the agency recommend that all blood donors of all sexual histories have an HIV test? Turning away good donors gives an incorrect and harmful message about transmission risk. This is screening donors based on sexual activity, not on risk.
The policy also stigmatizes people who wish to donate. Nkosi Johnson, in a speech at the 13th International AIDS Conference, said: "You can't get AIDS by hugging, kissing, holding hands. We are normal. We are human beings. We can walk, we can talk … We have needs just like everyone else. We are all the same." Maybe the FDA should realize this too and stop unfairly singling out a portion of the population.