“Do you want my blood, or don’t you?” is a seemingly simple question with a seemingly simple answer. No, this is not a convoluted sentence from Twilight, but actually something much more serious. The American Red Cross cries that America needs blood, saying every two seconds a person needs a blood transfusion, and America's hospitals are experiencing blood shortages. So why are millions of donors being turned away?
Because they are homosexual. Twenty-five years ago, at the height of homophobic health fears, the Food and Drug Administration banned gay men from donating blood. Although AIDS and HIV infected both gay and straight men and women, it was first thought of as a “gay disease”. However, a 2008 study released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims that today, only 20 percent of homosexual men have HIV or AIDS. Clearly, the FDA’s policy requires revision.
The vast majority of homosexual men don't have AIDS, but even if they did, the American Red Cross would be able to detect the disease before the blood was transmitted to anyone. According to the Red Cross, the agency runs a dozen tests on every single donation to check for “infectious diseases including HIV.” Blood that tests positive is promptly discarded. Because of these tests, the “current risk of transfusion-transmission of HIV is approximately 1 in 2 million.”
Although the odds of an HIV test discrepancy are less than the odds of being struck by lightning, the American Red Cross believes that the policy is a small price to pay for security. However, the FDA's policy is seriously flawed. It turns away donors with the potential to save multiple lives. Furthermore, it is just another example of a policy that denies gay men a right: The opportunity, as members of society, to give to others. Significantly, it fuels the stereotype that many have been working for decades to change; it does nothing to eliminate the belief that all gay men carry HIV or AIDS.
If one pint of blood can save up to three lives, turning away donors because of their sexual orientation puts lives at risk. According to the American Red Cross, only 38 percent of Americans qualify for giving blood today. By allowing homosexual men who test negative for HIV and AIDS to donate, more lives can be saved AND discriminatory attitudes can be alleviated. Five states and the District of Columbia already grant homosexual men the fundamental right to marry. As people become more educated as the years pass, tolerance, as well as rights, is continually increasing for homosexuals. Banning homosexual men from giving charitable donations is outdated and would be laughable, if it were not so tragic.
Another major issue is the fact that this ban reflects the misleading stereotype of homosexuals having HIV or AIDS. Americans should be supporting facts, not a quarter-century- old myth. Not only does the policy do nothing to dispel a terribly mistaken belief, but it also encourages other countries to adopt similarly flawed policies. On Sept. 9, a Canadian judge followed America’s 25-year-old discriminatory example by claiming that gay Canadians cannot donate blood. In her 187 page statement, Justice Catherine Aitken claimed that this policy was a necessary requirement in assuring the safety of blood donations.
Unlike many controversial issues, this one can have a very simple solution. The policy should be repealed and a new one put forth. Instead of questioning adults on their sexual orientation before they donate blood, all donors should have their blood vigorously tested. To be even more accurate, agencies like the American Red Cross should instill a policy of testing blood more than the three times it is currently tested.
The fight to abolish the FDA’s policy has already begun. According to a March 5 USA Today article, John Kerry, along with 16 other Democrats and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, wrote to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, noting that the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks reported to an FDA-sponsored workshop that the ban “is medically and scientifically unwarranted.” Yet, the story is evidence of how responses are influenced by past medical limitations, as it uses an argument that certain groups, such as those representing the Hemophilia community, originally supported the ban before “proper screening techniques” were put in place. Today, of course, that concern is no longer valid.
At the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee hearing in July, Kerry responded by saying “I trust that, as we move forward in this process, we will be guided by science rather than the past in determining the best screening policies to help make our blood supply even safer for all who depend on it.”
Our policies need to be changed. Our outreach to blood donors must apply to the people of 2010, not to the people of 1985. As our knowledge and medical capabilities regarding AIDS and HIV have evolved, so should our handling of the diseases.
This article first appeared in the November 5, 2010 issue of The Lowell.