Viewpoint: Bleeding for equality


Published April 8, 2014

Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood, meaning that more than 41,000 blood donations are needed daily. In fact, the number of Americans needing blood each day is roughly equal to the number of students attending this University. An estimated 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate, but only about 10 percent of the population actually does so on an annual basis.

Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policies that govern blood donation, any male who has had sex with another male (MSM) since 1977 is permanently banned from donating blood. This policy dates back to 1983, when some patients being treated for hemophilia started displaying AIDS-related symptoms after receiving routine blood transfusions. The FDA did what it could at the time: ban the group of people most likely to spread the HIV virus. Today, MSM remain the group most heavily affected by HIV in the United States, estimated to represent approximately 63 percent of new HIV infections each year.

While the MSM population has been linked to a higher prevalence of certain diseases like HIV, both blood testing efficacy and methods have greatly improved since 1977. It is estimated that the HIV transmission risk from a unit of blood has been reduced to about one per two million units of blood. Every pint of blood collected in the United States is now tested for at least eight different diseases — including HIV, HTLV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, Chagas disease and syphilis. The health history questionnaires and blood tests may not seem adequate independently, but they represent some of the many layers of screening methods that exist to further reduce the risk of transmitting diseases. These methods must continuously be improved in order to increase the safety of the blood supply.

While the intention of the current policy is to identify risky behavior, the reality is that it is discriminatory and inadequate. The current health questionnaire used during the prescreening process before donation specifically singles out those who identify as MSM, while failing to address other risky behaviors among individuals of all sexual orientations, such as unprotected sex, anal intercourse or having multiple sexual partners. The FDA considers risky behavior to be associated with MSM as an entire social identity, which is why it is included in the behaviorally based questions. Though the MSM population is at a greater risk for HIV, there are low-risk individuals who identify as MSM who should be allowed to donate if they otherwise meet the eligibility criteria of the FDA.

Blood Drives United, the University student organization that runs the annual Blood Battle competition against the Ohio State University, as well as the Face Off competition against Michigan State University, is taking action to create greater public awareness about the policy and the need for reevaluation of donor eligibility criteria. It is our hope that revised prescreening questions can serve to defer high-risk individuals while including low-risk individuals without an explicit focus on sexual orientation. BDU seeks to educate students, faculty, staff and community members about the policy and build support for a broad movement addressing this injustice by providing a productive way for all to participate.

BDU will host a sponsor blood drive in partnership with various student and community organizations from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 15 in the Michigan Union. This drive format, which allows individuals ineligible to donate because of the policy to bring an eligible individual to give blood on their behalf, serves as a productive way for all to participate. This will demonstrate that without this policy, potentially twice as many pints of blood could be collected, and thus a greater number of lives could be saved. A sponsor drive promotes awareness about this policy and advocates for policy improvement while still placing an emphasis on the overarching goal of collecting blood.

The day after the sponsor drive, Wednesday, April 16, BDU will be holding an informational discussion at the Ginsberg Center regarding the MSM policy in order to continue raising awareness and progress with this initiative. All who have questions, comments or an interest in this social issue are encouraged to attend. If you are unable to attend these events but would still like to be informed about our campus and community efforts, please contact

This viewpoint was written by members of Blood Drive United.