If the Blood’s Good, Use It

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In 1983 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed a restriction on blood donations from men who have sex with other men (known as MSM) in fear of the AIDS epidemic infecting the nation’s blood supply. Thirty years later, HIV and AIDS screening technologies have advanced to the point that this restriction is no longer necessary.

This June the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to oppose the ban on MSM blood donations stating that the policy is a needlessly discriminatory and outdated, as HIV/AIDS testing is now the standard practice for all blood donors.

In July of this year the National Gay Blood Drive collected HIV test results from potential MSM donors to demonstrate to the FDA the impact that changing their MSM donation policy would have on the national blood supply. In Minnesota, the drive took place in St. Paul and was hosted by Memorial Blood Centers (MBC).

MBC was on the MCTC campus collecting donations on September 19th. Steve Tishler, in charge of registration, was expecting about 43 donors to give roughly 35 units of blood, but was aiming for “As many as we can get through the door.”

Before giving blood, donors are submitted to a pre-interview that includes questions about health and travel, as well as questions about sexuality. Tishler noted that this information is confidential and shared only between the donor and MBC’s database.

There are many restrictions that can prevent one from donating blood. Some are obvious, like being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or using needles to take drugs or steroids not prescribed by a doctor. One is also ineligible to donate if they’ve had sex in exchange for drugs, money, or any other form of payment, or if they’ve had sexual contact with any of the above mentioned people in the last twelve months.

To put all MSM donors in the same category as prostitutes and drug addicts is discriminatory. The FDA defends its policy by stating that the: “FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.” but according the the AMA this documentation is no longer relevant.

Some colleges across the U.S. have started to ban organizations like MBC and the American Red Cross from their campus in response to FDA discrimination. In 2008 a blood drive ban was proposed at Sonoma State University in California, and drives were suspended at San Jose State University in California. In 2010 students protested blood drives at Keene State University in New Hampshire.

Most notable was the cessation of blood drives at Queens College at City University of New York (CUNY), which was later reversed under pressure from the chancellor. The same year, City College of New York of CUNY also banned on-campus blood drives.

But blood drives, and the volunteers of MBC, the Red Cross, and other charitable organizations are not at fault in this issue. According to their website: “Memorial Blood Centers and other blood centers nationwide have repeatedly urged the FDA to review and amend its deferral criteria for prospective MSM donors, supporting the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities.”

Donating blood saves lives, and it wouldn’t be ethical to protest the discrimination by the FDA at the behest of hospital patients who need the support of the the current base of blood donors to continue living. But it is equally unethical for the FDA to deny patients blood from willing and eligible MSM donors. Although it is clear more pressure must be put on the FDA to change its policy, it is also clear that boycotting blood drives is an unfavorable approach.

The National Gay Blood Drive website (<www.gayblooddrive.com>) has the photos and contact information of the 18 voting members who make up the Blood Products Advisory Committee. Although it may not be as bombastic as a campus boycott, a simple email or phone call might be the best way to make your voice heard on this emerging issue.

With a red bandage around his elbow and his blood on the MBC shelves, student Neile Pederson questioned the FDA’s choice against MSM donations. “As long as they have the same screening standards, what’s the problem?” With two gay males in his family, Pederson made an analogy between blood and cars. “It’s like saying you can only use this kind of oil versus the other kind. They’re both oil and they both do the same thing. If the blood’s good, use it.”

Photo by Teri Walker at the MCTC blood drive.