If you are one of the dozens of people planning to give blood at Couzens Hall or West Quad today, there are quite a few things you should know. You must weigh at least 110 pounds. You can’t donate again if you’ve done so in the last eight weeks. You shouldn’t donate for 12 months after you receive a tattoo. You can’t donate if you’ve traveled to certain West African countries recently or have been in contact with someone who has.
And one more thing: You are contributing to an organization that discriminates against gay men. Or at least that’s what administrators at San José State University think.
In an unprecedented snub of the American Red Cross, San José State President Don Kassing announced earlier this month that he is booting blood drives from campus. Why? Because men who have had sex with other men at least once since 1977 are barred for life from giving blood, according to a Food and Drug Administration policy.
While it’s unfortunate that the Red Cross is now caught in the crossfire, Kassing’s decision was a necessary evil to uphold his institution’s non-discrimination policy. As unsettling as it might seem, the University of Michigan, with a similar non-discrimination policy, should follow suit with its own campus-wide ban on blood drives.
Few argue that the FDA’s policy and its enforcement by the Red Cross is anything but discriminatory. A relic of a time when mullets, Madonna and “Miami Vice” were popular, the policy was rightly created in 1983 to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS through blood transfusions. It was true at the time – as it still is – that men who have had sex with other men have a disproportionately higher chance of being HIV positive. Without reliable HIV testing or a full understanding of the disease, turning gay men away was one of the few known ways to keep blood banks from becoming HIV distribution centers.
But then came the enlightenment of the 1990s. Made possible by cheaper, more precise tests, all blood is now tested for HIV after it’s donated. People now understand that being a gay man isn’t a cause of HIV. As any good high school health class should have embedded into your brain, it’s unsafe sex, intravenous drug use and unprotected exposure to bodily fluids that transmit the disease. Blood from gay people is just the same as blood from anyone else.
The FDA missed that lesson. Despite pleas from the Red Cross and two other prominent blood donation agencies arguing that the policy was “medically and scientifically unwarranted,” the FDA renewed the policy in May 2007. Among a few arguments, it argued that testing is accurate but never 100-percent definitive, so you can never be too safe.
With the Red Cross’s arguments falling on deaf ears, San José State is believed to be the first major university to jump into the game and pressure the FDA. The decision to ban blood drives, however, has met stark resistance from individuals and groups who argue that the university is putting its policies above the lives of people who could be saved by necessary blood transfusions. Blood is in short supply, and every pint matters.
As Martha Kurtz, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross Southeastern Michigan Blood Services Region told me, “The Red Cross really relies on blood supplies from colleges and even high schools.” Losing these vital supplies would be catastrophic.
However important college donations may be, it still takes a logical leap to make the argument that universities consequently kill patients by banning blood drives. When a university stops allowing blood drives on campus, it doesn’t bar students from donating elsewhere. For example, if the University of Michigan were to cancel the blood drive at West Quad today, nothing would stop a blood drive from being held two blocks away at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. If blood banks could coordinate with places near campus, it’s would be a win-win situation: The amount of donated blood wouldn’t precipitously fall, and the University would pressure the FDA into reforming its policy.
More importantly, it’s easy to forget that the FDA’s policy reduces the blood supply. By turning away gay and bisexual men, the policy keeps many from donating. It is estimated that if the lifetime ban were changed to a one-year deferral then 112,000 more men would be eligible to donate. If critics of campus bans directed their anger at the FDA instead of wrongfully attacking universities, the FDA might finally be spurred into reforming its policy.
After that happens, we all could go back to worrying about whether Ohio State students donate more blood then Michigan students do.
-Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.