Op-Ed: Just blood?

Sunday, April 16, 2017 - 12:37pm

On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. 50 people were killed and 53 others were wounded, marking the shooting as the greatest act of violence against LGBTQ individuals and the largest mass shooting by a single shooter in the history of the United States. While dozens of victims lay in need of blood, the LGBTQ community mobilized to help support them. Despite their best efforts, queer men were left helpless in their attempt to save the survivors of this tragedy — barred from donating blood. 

Why? Because they are gay.

In the 1980s, as a reaction to the HIV epidemic and its portrayal as a “gay man’s” disease, the Food and Drug Administration banned men who have had sex with men from donating blood. When the policy was first put into place, there was a lack of concrete medical information about HIV and AIDS, which led the medical community to believe HIV almost solely affected the gay community. Thus, it was deemed more important to ensure the safety of transfusion recipients than ensuring equality in donations. For this reason, a ban on gay men from donating blood seemed reasonable at the time.  

However, with modern medical science and a greater understanding of how HIV is spread, an updated policy is necessary. Though a 2010 study found there is a higher prevalence of HIV within the gay community, heterosexual relationships account for 25 percent of new HIV infections annually in the United States. Alternative risk assessment policies, rather than a ban on an entire group of individuals from blood donations, will allow more people to donate blood and also decrease the likelihood of transmitted infections.

Though this ban has been altered recently going from a lifetime deferral to the current one-year abstinence policy for gay men, the current policy is still rooted in discrimination. While changing the policy to a 12-month deferral allows gay men to donate blood, it effectively functions as a lifetime ban for most of these men. It poses the underlying assumption that homosexual men are promiscuous and dirty, therefore increasing their likelihood of contracting HIV, regardless of the details of their respective sexual experiences.

Because of this discrimination, we propose a change in the FDA’s rules on how it determines eligibility for blood donation. Italy, since 2001, has utilized a system where blood donor eligibility is based on an individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors. With this policy change, deferment of donation could not be based upon sexual orientation, but was determined, in detailed interviews from medical professionals, by exposure to risk. In cases where risk is identified, donors are barred from donating for four months following the exposing event. Following this change, there was no increase in the amount of HIV-positive blood donors when comparing homosexual to heterosexual donors. As heterosexuals accounted for 40 percent of HIV antibody-positive cases in donors, this form of assessment not only eliminated the discriminatory policies toward homosexual men, but also prevented numerous heterosexual HIV-positive donors from contaminating the blood supply.

A study conducted by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law calculated that lifting the ban would result in 360,600 additional donors providing nearly 615,300 pints of blood each year. A 2014 article described how the Red Cross needs 80,000 units of blood a day, but only receives 36,000. Allowing donations from gay men who do not engage in risky behavior would help to minimize this shortage.

Luckily, there are ways each and every one of us can help. In February, a group of students put on a blood drive where straight allies donated blood in the name of gay people who were banned from donating. With the University of Michigan wrapping up its 200th year, there are many things to keep in mind. In those 200 years, the University of Michigan has been a constant hotbed of social change, and Michigan Medicine has been a pioneer within the medical field. If we truly are the Leaders and the Best, it is time for our community to take action to change the FDA’s discriminatory policy.

If you’d like to join us, please respond here.

Kieran Baack is an Engineering sophomore and Rishi Shah is an Engineering senior. Both are members of the Just Blood team.