Viewpoint: Ending a discriminatory blood policy

BY BETSY GAST
Chelsea Fournier
Published October 21, 2013

Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policies that govern blood donation, any male who has had sexual contact with another male — also referred to as MSM — since 1977 is permanently banned from donating blood. While the intention of this categorization is to identify risky behavior, the reality is that the policy is discriminatory and inadequate. While the MSM population has been linked to higher prevalence of diseases such as HIV, the current health questionnaire singles out this issue while failing to address other riskier behaviors among individuals of all sexual orientations, such as unprotected sex and having multiple sexual partners. Discrimination against the MSM population is a social injustice that can be addressed in safe, effective ways. Current policies target and discriminate against a number of donors in the gay and bisexual community, while still allowing a number of high-risk individuals to donate.

The Chinese Ministry of Health has lifted a ban on lesbian blood donation that also allows celibate gay men to donate. Canada has adopted a five-year deferral following any sexual contact between two men, and the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan and Australia have adopted one-year deferrals following homosexual intercourse to align with deferrals for other risky behaviors. Although these are moves in the right direction, these changes still address the donor’s sexual orientation.

The American Association of Blood Banks and America’s Blood Centers have concluded that the lifetime deferral of MSM is “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” They support a change to the current policy that would reduce the deferral period to one year, harmonizing with the deferral period for other high-risk sexual behaviors. The American Medical Association additionally opposes the lifetime ban on blood donation, concluding that existing data and models support change to a reduced deferral policy.

Blood Drives United, the University of Michigan student organization that runs the annual Blood Battle competition against Ohio State University, is launching an initiative to petition the Food and Drug Administration to reevaluate and improve this outdated policy. The proposed policy change seeks to include newly eligible, safe-donor populations while reinforcing the safety of the blood supply via the alteration of the question addressing MSM to, “Have you had unprotected sexual contact with a new sexual partner in the past 12 weeks?” An affirmative answer would result in a scientifically reasoned 12-week deferral, based on the HIV-window period where an HIV-afflicted individual can transmit HIV without testing positive for the virus. However, this deferral could be extended to a maximum of one year for consistency with other behaviorally based deferral periods. This proposed question eliminates reference to and discrimination against sexual orientation and strengthens restrictions on risky behaviors of all populations that are presently overlooked.

With the advent of existing, improved biological testing alongside the implementation of rationally based questions, policy change can help save lives, secure the safety of the blood supply and create greater equality amongst donors. Regardless of sexual orientation, an individual should be allowed to donate blood if they otherwise pass all of the FDA’s eligibility requirements, including, but not limited to, a disease-free status.

Join us during Blood Battle for the initiative “Bleeding for Equality,” whether to donate blood to beat Ohio State University or to help address this policy. Helping out with our sponsor drives, which, at both the University and OSU, will provide the opportunity for presently ineligible individuals to recruit others to donate on their behalf, visually demonstrating that we could potentially have two times as many donors. We will collect information on how many people affected by this policy could be potential donors and present the information, along with our petition, to the FDA following the competition.

Sign our petition, which will be available at all blood drives, various campus events and online via the White House’s “We the People” forum from Nov. 3 to Dec. 3. We must collect 100,000 signatures within those 30 days, so please inform others of this discriminatory policy and how to get involved to change to this social injustice. Visit www.bloodbattle.org to find out more.

Betsy Gast is an Engineering senior. Chelsea Fournier and Kevin Weiss are LSA seniors. Sara Fritz is a Kinesiology junior. Samantha Rea is an LSA junior.