Commentary by Nina Brennan
More than thirty years have passed since the lifetime ban of blood donation from MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) was implemented. Over the years, there have been small pushes for change: In 2012, for example, CNN reported 64 United States legislators, including Senator John Kerry, addressed a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to encourage research which would ultimately lift the ban.
“We remain concerned that a blanket deferral of MSM for any length of time both perpetuates the unwarranted discrimination against the bisexual and gay community and prevents healthy men from donating blood without a definitive finding of added benefit to the safety of the blood supply.”
The ban was instituted in 1983, as the rising incidence of HIV infection was pervasive, and the technique for blood testing at donor banks was comparatively unsophisticated and outdated. Contemporary methods are able to indicate whether HIV is present in the blood stream within weeks of exposure, and the Center for Disease Control lists the incidence of HIV infection through blood transfusion to be one in 1.5 million, based on 2007-08 data. The CDC claims the current small risk of infection is a result of their questionnaires (which exclude “high risk” donors) as well as the highly sensitive blood testing protocol.
According to the Red Cross, high risk candidates for infection resulting in a lifetime blood ban are: a.) anyone who has used intravenous drugs not prescribed by a medical professional, b.) anyone who has taken any form of payment for sex since 1977, and c.) any male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977. Anyone who has had sexual contact with any of the described above is ineligible to donate for 12 months.
Essentially, any individual who has had sexual contact with multiple partners, protected or not, is eligible to donate blood as long as they are not within the sexual contact parameters listed above. MSM’s who have had any sexual contact with any man, despite the use of a condom, are unable to donate.
Recently, the news has been abuzz about the potential for the MSM blood ban to be lifted: The Department of Health and Human Services recommended MSM’s as eligible for donation, provided he was celibate for 12 months prior.
Unfortunately, the buzz regarding lifting the ban was perhaps too optimistic: on December 10th, 2014, the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Panel endorsed the lifetime ban. Mark Joseph Stern, of Slate.com, argued the panel opposed the 12-month deferral of blood donation because they were concerned MSM’s would be dishonest.
“…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.”
Even though it is bewildering the FDA panel rejected this 12-month caveat, the proposal itself was discriminatory and outlandish. It is deplorable to shame MSM’s into celibacy: this is a message that homosexual male sexual contact is dirty sexual contact, and any instance of sexual contact with another man should be viewed not only as risky, but almost probable of infection. It is extraordinarily invasive to police the sexual behavior of anyone, and use the results to reject and shame potential donors. Indeed, the “slut-shaming” of MSM’s must stop. Social justice supporters have long been championing for the end of “slut-shaming” for sexually active women on birth control, it is time to extend this campaign to MSM’s. There are millions of healthy men who are unable to donate blood solely because of their sexual history/orientation; with the need for blood outweighing current donations, the FDA must stop treating the ability to donate blood as a privilege, further ostracizing homosexual men and perpetuating the notion of male homosexual sex as “dirty sex.”
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