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U.S. Advisory Panel Recommends Easing Ban on Gay Blood Donors, Requiring a Year of Abstinence

November 17, 2014

The Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability (ACBTSA) recommended to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Nov. 13 that the 31-year ban on blood donations from gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) be eased, but not lifted. Businessweek reports that the new policy, called "donor deferral," would prohibit MSM from donating blood unless they have been abstinent from same-sex sexual activity for one year.

The current policy, established in 1983 in the midst of fear about AIDS being spread through blood transfusions, prohibits blood donations from any man who has had sex with a man since 1977. However, as more reliable, faster tests for HIV have become available, blood banks, scientists and LGBT activists have pushed for an end to the lifetime ban.

Reaction to the donor deferral policy has been mixed.

As reported by ABC News, the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and AABB, a nonprofit representing institutions and individuals in the field of transfusion medicine, all "cheered the news," noting the ban is "medically and scientifically unwarranted."

The three organizations issued a joint statement, that stated, "We believe all potential donors should be treated with fairness, equality and respect."

David Stacy, director of government affairs for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said in a statement that, "This recommendation -- although nominally better than the existing policy -- falls far short because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men, preventing them from donating life-saving blood based solely on their sexual orientation."

The Washington Blade reported that Ryan James Yezak of the National Gay Blood Drive, which gets straight allies to donate blood in place of gay and bisexual men, said the recommendation was "a huge step in the right direction."

"'This discussion needs to be about how donor deferral perpetuates the stigma of men who have sex with men having HIV,' [Jason Cianciotto, director of public policy at GMHC, told Businessweek]. 'It's a federal government policy that is no longer scientifically necessary because of advancements in testing.'" He noted that he and his husband, who have been monogamous for 11 years, would be banned from donating under the recommendation, adding that the policy should be "based on risk assessment regardless of sexual orientation instead of a deferral for one group."

A recent study quantifies the impact of the ban on the nation's blood supply. In a September study from the Williams Institute cited by Businessweek, the policy institute estimated that "If the ban was completely eliminated, 360,600 men would probably donate 615,300 additional pints of blood a year, which could be used to help 1.8 million people."

The recommendation will be considered by the Blood Products Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at a meeting on Dec. 2.

Sue Saltmarsh has worked in the HIV/AIDS field for over 20 years, the first 10 as an herbalist and energy therapist at Project Vida, the last six as a writer and copy editor for Positively Aware magazine. She is now a freelance writer and editor and is also able to devote more time to her passion as founder and director of the Drive for Universal Healthcare (DUH).

Copyright © 2014 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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