Mike Quigley is a Democratic member of congress from Illinois and sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
On June 11, an advisory committee to the Department of Health and Human Services, composed of health experts from around the country, voted 9-6 to maintain a policy that bans gay and bisexual men from ever donating blood.
This decision, by the department's Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability, was hugely disappointing to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, the blood banking community, the American Medical Association, and dozens of policymakers who have argued for years that this outdated policy needs to be changed. It was also dramatically eye-opening for the greater American public, because the committee acknowledged that this outdated policy allows high-risk individuals to donate while prohibiting low-risk donors who could contribute life-saving blood, which is in short supply. That is, the Food and Drug Administration's current policy—a policy once intended to protect Americans—could, in fact, leave our blood supply less safe and less available, rather than more. Still, there is reason for hope.
While the committee voted to uphold the present ban, for now, it also voted unanimously that the current deferral is "suboptimal" and that alternative policies need to be developed. This may not seem like much at face value, but this meeting marked a significant change: No longer are advocates and citizens the only ones calling for change, but an official panel of medical experts has now acknowledged the shortcomings of the current policy and has recommended researching alternatives.
The current policy has been in place since the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when health officials banned for life any man who has had sex with a man—even once—since 1977 from donating blood. In the 25 years since, we have seen vast advances in blood screening technology, policy changes in other nations, and staunch opposition from the blood banks, which have called the current ban "medically and scientifically unwarranted."
Nevertheless, healthy gay and bisexual men continue to be banned for life, while the FDA allows a man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman to give blood after waiting only one year. This double standard is indefensible and nonsensical. Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even as we face serious blood shortages. According to a recent UCLA study, lifting the ban could provide an additional 219,000 pints of much-needed blood and 900 additional organ donations each year.
The June 11 meeting marked the first time that the advisory committee publicly acknowledged this double standard. The committee agreed unanimously that current donor policies "permit some potentially high risk donations while preventing some potentially low risk donations." This means people who have transmissible diseases are free to give blood despite the current restrictions, while many who are safe to donate are being turned away. Clearly, the current policy is not working.
Rather than perpetuating a flawed practice based on outdated science, we need a policy that prevents people who engage in high-risk behavior from donating while permitting low-risk donors to do so. The committee recommended researching several viable alternatives that would allow low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate. Now, we need follow-through.
Despite hints of progress, we still face challenges, the most significant of which is a lack of political will. The FDA has put revising this policy on the back burner, and while some have raised concerns, the FDA has for the most part continued to ignore this issue. We must demonstrate to the FDA that changing this outdated, discriminatory policy is a priority.
If you or someone you know is perfectly healthy but banned from giving blood because of sexual orientation, I encourage you to write to your member of Congress, write to the FDA, write to the Department of Health and Human Services. Let policymakers know you want to see a policy that encourages a larger, healthier, life-saving blood supply and that reflects current science rather than a stigma of the past.