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Blood Donation Ban for Gay and Bisexual Men Under Review by HHS

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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July 28, 2011

Late last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided an important status update about ongoing research studies examining the lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have ever had sex with other men since 1977.

Gay and bisexual men, intravenous drug users, people who have had sex for money and people who have tested positive for HIV disease are currently the only groups of people banned from donating blood. Gay and bisexual men are excluded regardless of their individual sexual histories or HIV risk. Despite the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, other individuals who are also at increased risk for HIV disease, including people who have heterosexual sex with someone who they know to be living with HIV or people who have had sex with a commercial sex worker, are prevented from donating blood for only one year.

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability called the current lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men “suboptimal.” In response to the recommendations HHS received from the Advisory Committee, Dr. Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health, tasked the HHS Blood, Organ and Tissue Safety Working Group with developing a plan of action, including the current studies, which will allow for further review and re-evaluation of the lifetime ban.

In announcing its progress report last week, HHS stated:

When these studies are complete, the Department is committed to a full evidence-based evaluation of the policy. If the data indicate that a change is possible while protecting the blood supply, we will consider a change to the policy.

Because current policy establishes different standards for behaviors that pose similar (or greater) risk of HIV transmission, it has been criticized, not unfairly, as stigmatizing and discriminatory to gay and bisexual men.

The ACLU has long argued that policy in this area must be grounded in actual scientific evidence, rather than dated stereotypes and assumptions. While there is no constitutional right to donate blood, government policy regulating the blood donation field must not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation by adopting differing standards for conduct that poses similar risks, based solely on the identity of those engaging in such conduct.

The Obama administration has made commendable progress in updating policies impacting those living with HIV and AIDS to ensure they are based on sound science and not discriminatory stereotypes that originated in a time when ignorance and fear about HIV/AIDS, and those living with the disease, ran wild. Within its first year in office, the administration brought an end to the 22-year-old travel ban that barred anyone with HIV or AIDS from entering the country. President Obama said the ban was “rooted in fear rather than fact.”

Here’s hoping science once again carries the day.

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