This federal blood donation policy discriminates against gay men- and impacts all of us
by Judy Bokao
Millions of lives are saved because of people’s willingness to donate blood. As it cannot be created synthetically in laboratories and there are no medical alternatives to it, blood is crucial to health facilities. During the pandemic, the American Red Cross has declared a blood crisis. According to the Red Cross, this is the worst blood shortage in over a decade, and it poses critical risks to patient care. However, America has not yet completely lifted the federal policy that prevents gay and bisexual men from being eligible donors.
A White House official earlier today acknowledged the Food and Drug Administration’s long-time blood donation guidelines and the impact they have had on the LGBTQ+ community. The Biden administration for the first time acknowledged the painful origins of the policy and assured the public that the government is committed to making sure that the ban is based purely on science and not stigma.
The FDA ban was first put in place back in 1980 during the HIV/AIDS crisis. After pressure from activists and calls to remove the lifetime ban, The FDA lifted the lifetime ban and enacted a 12-month deferral period in 2015. This allowed only the gay and bisexual men who had abstained from sexual activities for a year to be eligible for blood donation. This was later changed in April 2020 when FDA reduced the deferral period from one year to 3 months. They did this in response to the shortages of blood supply amid the onset of the pandemic.
Most countries in the world have done away with the ban or deferral and gay men are considered eligible blood donors. Unfortunately, it seems like the United States is still clashing over risk and stigma. Most medical experts have called out this deferral policy as discriminatory. They argue that blood donation eligibility should not be determined by sexual orientation but rather an individual risk-based approach.
The Human Rights Campaign also spoke up on the blood ban policy after the dire call from the Red Cross and urged the FDA to do away with the three-month deferral policy. The civil rights organization called the policy outdated given the advancement in science and said it only continues to stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community.
A past 2014 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute approximated that abolishing the ban could “increase the total yearly blood supply by 2 to 4%, adding 345,400 to 615,300 pints of blood annually.” One pint of blood can save up to three lives. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD estimated if the deferral period was lifted in 2022, an additional 360,000 men would likely donate, “which could help save the lives of more than a million people.”
Last year, the FDA announced that it has launched a study known as ADVANCE (Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts in Eligibility) to probe whether the three-month donor deferral period can be amended based on an individual risk assessment. The results of the study were expected to be announced by December 2021 but unfortunately due to lack of participation, it was delayed. So far, there is no specific timeline for when the study will be completed. This is alarming given the dire state of the national blood reserve that has dwindled to a less than one day reserve from a five-day supply of blood. Given the urgency, FDA should seriously consider doing away with the deferral that unfairly discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community.
About the Author:
Judy Bokao is 20 years old and was born in Ethiopia but relocated to Nairobi two years ago. She is passionate about everyone having equal rights and is also big on conservation and speaking up for our planet. Judy loves reading and photography and is just a free-spirited young lady trying to grow into a woman her mom can be proud of.