When Obama was seeking the Presidency, the GLBT community had a well-defined punch list of action items, and he promised big things on all of them: repeal of DADT; repeal of DOMA (although he doesn’t support marriage equality); passing ENDA; passing inclusive hate crimes law (the only hole punched so far). A few others, notably the administrative implementation of the-then recent repeal of the insane prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants, were perhaps further down on the list, but also up for discussion. Conspicuously absent from the mainstream agenda has been an item of interest to the public health community: lifting of the ban on gay blood donors.
So I was buoyed to see that just a few days ago, a group of sixteen U.S. Senators sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging the agency to reconsider its twenty-seven-year-old lifetime ban (“deferral” is the quaint term used, but it’s politely Orwellian in this case) on blood donations for men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man.
The policy is long overdue for an overhaul. As the letter notes, the policy is inconsistent with various other exclusions, and is an artifact of a time when all that was really known of HIV infection — and we weren’t even calling it that, in 1983 — is that it disproportionately struck gay men. Even today, MSM (“men who have sex with men,” which is the term used by the CDC because it focuses on sexual behavior, rather than on orientation) are prohibited, forever, from donating blood if they have had sex, even once, with another man, at any time since 1977. The Senators’ letter points out the many inconsistencies in the policy, including the fact that there’s no exclusion of those who have had high-risk, unprotected heterosexual sex, no matter how recently. Even more absurdly, those who have had heterosexual sex with those known to have HIV are only deferred for one year; not for 33! And “sex” isn’t defined when it comes to MSM: the safest kind of protected sexual acts are, in theory, treated the same as the riskiest.
It should go without saying that none of this can be justified from a public health perspective.
These inconsistencies should be enough to sink the policy which, as the letter notes, has lately been repudiated by the major blood banking organizations, most significantly including the Red Cross. But the problems are much deeper and more serious than even the letter recognizes. A few years ago, I discussed the issue in detail in this law review article. Here, I’ll summarize the arguments I made there that weren’t explicitly raised in the letter.
First, while the CDC is careful to distinguish behavior — men having sex with men — from identity, the FDA policy undermines this sound epidemiological distinction by effectively collapsing the two. By excluding any man who’s had any kind of “sex” (not defined!) with even one other man during the past thirty-plus years, the FDA has created a policy that isn’t about relevant behavior, but about some weirdly expansive view of (gay) sexual orientation. Because if it were about behavior, the line would have been drawn in an entirely different place; say, for a year after specifically identified, high-risk behavior.
Second, the policy undermines trust in public health in a few related ways. Obviously, as a practical matter the policy isn’t enforceable, and the sheer breadth of it has doubtless caused many to ignore it. People aren’t stupid: Gay men who know they have an HIV-negative serostatus might give blood, understanding that they pose no threat. (According to this very unscientific poll over at 365gay.com, almost 200 of 800 respondents admitted to having lied about their sexual practices on the questionnaire.) But by attempting to fence them out, the FDA has sent gay men an unwelcome message that could undermine the community’s trust in other ways. One important public health principle is that it recognizes the long-term value of respecting the dignity of all populations.
Why has the policy persisted for so long? One argument seems sensible, at first blush: If the exclusion were changed to, say, one year, there would be some infinitesimal increase in the number of HIV-positive blood transfusions (well less than one in a million, it’s estimated), so why do anything to increase the risk? But the “let’s not do anything if there’s a tiny risk of harm” canard — which, by the way, is also prevalent in arguments against marriage equality — wouldn’t be, and hasn’t been, applied to any other category of people, or of conduct. Of course there will be some tiny uptick, not because of the three-week window period between infection and ability to identify it, which any contemplated new rule would easily accommodate, but because of the irreducible human error associated with the process: If you add more people, some will get through who should not. But this could be said of any proposal to add donors; it’s just that “MSM” have had such a draconian policy applied to them for so long that the donor baseline is essentially zero for this group.
It seems that uprooting this policy is fairly far down on the priority list for the LGBT community. Indeed, this story seems to have attracted but little attention. But messages matter. The radical, embarrassingly outdated FDA policy sends a terrible signal that ought to concern us. It’s good to see that someone is finally suggesting action. Will Obama back them up?