Since 1983, the FDA has placed a blanket ban on blood donations from anyone who has had sex with another man at any time since the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. The ban was instituted as hysteria about the AIDS epidemic was growing and blood screening technology hadn’t been instituted to detect the virus in blood donations. The FDA insists that the decision, now in its fourth decade is “based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”
As the FDA hearings on the ban this week have shown, there is no good scientific reason why gay men and men who have sex with men are singled out for treatment that no one else receives. The FDA insists that it’s concerned about the safety of the blood supply, but here are five good reasons why the agency seems to be motivated by anything but science.
1. The FDA is more lenient with straight men. Have unprotected sex with a female prostitute, and you have to wait a year before you can donate blood. Watch a Judy Garland movie anytime since Gerald Ford was president, and you’re a leper for life.
2. The agency doesn’t differentiate what kind of gay sex. The science proves that unprotected anal sex is a high-risk behavior for HIV transmission. Other types of sex don’t carry anything like the same risk. But the FDA doesn’t care what kind of sex you had, just that you had it with another man. In the FDA’s book, mutual masturbation is as good a reason to ban gay blood donors as unprotected anal sex.
3. Monogamy? Never heard of it. In a monogamous relationship? The FDA doesn’t care and it’s not about to take your word for it in any case. It just care that you’re knocking boots with another man. Imagine if they applied the same standard to heterosexual married couples.
4. Multiple experts have called the ban nonsense. The American Medical Association, the American Red Cross, and the American Association of Blood Banks have all called on the FDA to change its policy on the grounds that its not based on sound science. A one-year deferral, which is common in many countries, would make more sense than a lifetime ban, they argued and would result in one additional transfusion-related infection every 32 years.
5. The technology is incredibly advanced. The most commonly used test to screen blood donations will detect HIV within nine days of the donor becoming infected. The risk of transmission from a donation is from anyone who just become infected with HIV within a little more than the past week. From the way the FDA acts, you think that science has stood still since Reagan was president.
The FDA panel that held hearings to consider lifting the ban was unable to come to any conclusion after two days of “heated deliberations.” The heat seems to come from something other than cold hard science. In the meantime, the agency seems intent on reminding us that the hysteria that fueled the response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is still alive and kicking.