The FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Panel met last week to discuss possibly lifting the government’s decades-old ban on blood donation by men who have sex with men (MSM). And the outcome was not good.
Even though a Department of Health and Human Services panel voted almost unanimously to reduce the policy to a one-year deferral, the FDA panel failed to side with them. As it stands, the policy bans MSM from donating blood for life, regardless of their HIV status.
The FDA panel didn’t even formally make a decision; they closed the discussion before taking a vote. And while the panel doesn’t have the authority to change the policy, the FDA takes its advice into strong consideration when making decisions.
As this Slate article (and many others) points out, the blood ban is at this point rooted in discrimination alone; HIV-detection technology has evolved so that a person’s status can be checked quickly and accurately, all donated blood is tested for HIV, and even so, straight people who have slept with different-sex partners who are HIV-positive only have to wait a year to donate, rather than being banned for life.
The panel’s refusal to advise replacing the lifetime ban with a one-year deferral—twinned with its craven refusal to go on the record as opposing it—is deeply irritating. Even more galling is its reasoning, or lack thereof: It’s clear that the advisers on the panel saw the campaign to lift the blood ban as more a political crusade than a scientific appeal. (Apparently, they haven’t checked in with American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, the American Association of Blood Banks, and the American Medical Association, all of which oppose the ban.) “It sounds to me like we’re talking about policy and civil rights” rather than safety and science, one adviser scoffed. Another anxiously described lowering the ban as “a leap of faith.”
This language is quite curious. The advisers were not considering abolishing the gay blood ban altogether; they were simply considering replacing it with a new ban that forces gay men to be celibate for a year before donating. Their stated opposition to gay blood donation is a fear that HIV-positive men will donate. But every blood donation is tested for HIV, and the virus can now be detected within weeks of infection. If gay men were celibate for a year before their donation, how could they possibly carry an increased risk for HIV? If they were already HIV-negative prior to a year of celibacy, how could they even have HIV at all?
Parse this chain of reasoning, and the Blood Products Advisory Panel’s true fear is obvious: It is afraid gay men will lie. The advisers won’t support a one-year deferral because they believe gay men will lie about how long they’ve been celibate in order to donate blood. There’s just no other way to justify opposition to a one-year deferral.
Infuriating. It is officially more important to this panel to uphold ancient discriminatory stereotypes than to literally save lives. We’re in a permanent blood shortage; this policy locks out millions of potential donors. For whose benefit?