FDA rules still ban gay blood donations

By Katie Cray

“Are you a man who has had sex with another man, even once, since 1977?”

Any man who answers “yes” to this question on a blood donation questionnaire, which all interested donors must fill out prior to donating, is permanently banned from donating blood, according to regulations by the U.S. Federal Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).

The guideline’s definition of sexual contact includes oral sex and anal sex, regardless if a condom was used. It became a guideline in 1983, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and was formalized in 1990, according to Boston Globe reports at the time.

In spring 2005, students at the University of New Hampshire protested the policy outside an American Red Cross blood donor clinic. 700 people signed a petition to change this rule.

But the policy has remained unchanged since 1983, provoking protests from the gay community. According to the FDA, a meeting was recently held to review the policy by the Blood Products Advisory Committee (BPAC), a board that advises the FDA. The FDA studied the risk of relaxing the policy to allow a 12 month deferral period after having sex with another man. This deferral rule was defeated by one vote when it went to the BPAC.

With the current abundance of blood drives on and around campus, Kyle Piers, treasurer of the Northeastern University Bisexual Lesbian Transgender and Gay Association (NUBiLAGA), said he was confused as to why potential donors are being turned away because of their sexual history.

With American Red Cross reports showing that every two seconds an American is in need of a blood transfusion, and that only 5 percent of the people who are eligible to donate actually do, Piers said he finds the ban unpractical and unfairly discriminates against homosexual men.

“It’s a form of discrimination,” said Piers, a sophomore biochemistry major. “With blood always being asked for, donating is a great thing. But the ban strips gay men of the privilege, which is not fair. It is unfair to think that all gay men are infected.”

According to the FDA, The policy was created at a time when AIDS was known as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease. According to the FDA, although more than 22 million people have died of AIDS since the late seventies, it is no longer known as “the gay man’s cancer.”

The current policy is based on stats from the 1980s, which group homosexual men with high-risk categories, such as intravenous drug addicts and prostitutes, Piers said.

However, other statistics do not affect donor policy. In 2005, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that African-American women are 19 times more likely than white women to contract AIDS, and 5 times more likely than Hispanic women. Poor and uneducated people are also at a high risk of being infected with the disease.”These groups are not banned from donating.

According to the FDA, the policy is not an attack on homosexuals because lesbians, gay men who have abstained since 1977 and gay men who have only engaged in sexual contact deemed safe, such as kissing and mutual masturbation, are permitted to donate. Women who have slept with men who have had sex with other men must wait twelve months before they are eligible to donate, by FDA policy.

The American Red Cross, the largest and high-profile blood collection agency in the U.S., follows the life ban as regulated by the FDA in order to ensure the safety of the supply. Other countries, such as Russia, South Africa, Italy and Spain have lifted the ban, and have yet to experience conflict. Portugal is also about to remove the policy.

Maria Depina, a donor specialist from the American Red Cross on Stuart Street, has assisted donors for three years and has only turned away one potential donor as mandated by the FDA’s regulation.

“He was disappointed that he could not donate, but not angry,” she said.

The FDA’s policy is applied at blood collection agencies across the US, regardless of an individual organization’s beliefs.

“It’s the American Red Cross policy,” Depina said. “We just follow it, that’s all.”

Fight to Give Life is a national organization opposed to the current regulations regarding blood donations from homosexual men. Fight to Give Life was founded November by Shawn Werner, current president of the organization, and comprises college students from around the country, including members of Northeastern’s NUBiLAGA.

Werner, who graduated from Dickinson College with a political science degree last year, attempted to donate blood at age 17. While filling out his questionnaire, he saw the question regarding whether or not he had had sex with another man, and answered that he had not because he was not openly gay, said Werner. He then put a confidential “DO NOT USE MY BLOOD” sticker on his questionnaire.

Werner then donated blood and later passed out. Although he is unsure of why now, at the time, he thought he passed out because he was gay, he said.

Werner said he based his reasoning for passing out on his implications on the FDA’s regulations.

“It needs to be based on science, not stigma,” he said. “There is not enough federal funding for research. The models [and statistics] have huge assumptions versus hard science, because it is not easy to get data from men who do not attend STD clinics.”

This issue affects a wide demographic of Americans trying to give back to their community, Werner said. He said that continued action needs to be taken to get the policy changed.

“Talk to people when donating,” Werner said. “Get in touch with legislation to change this. It only shows how status quo continues if we just remain silent.”

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