Yesterday, the Seattle City Council sent a letter to the federal Food and Drug Administration calling for an end to a three-decade federal ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men.
The letter called the ban, which has been in place since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s, “an outdated and discriminatory practice” and called for gay and bisexual men to be screened “based on a risk assessment of behaviors, rather than on sexual orientation.” Other cities including New York and Washington, DC have already issued similar resolutions.
Opposition to the ban has grown stronger in recent years. Last year, the American Medical Association stated its opposition to the policy, which one AMA trustee called “discriminatory and not based on sound science.” The American Red Cross also opposes the lifetime ban.
The UK, Sweden, Japan and Australia allow gay (etc.) men to donate blood after several months of abstinence from gay sex, based on the rationale that there’s a brief window after someone is initially infected with HIV during which blood tests can miss the virus. A 2010 study found that Australia’s policy has not resulted in increased risk of contaminated blood transfusion.
Council members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark—the two gay members of the council—told PubliCola that repealing the ban is important for the sake of both equality and public health. “I think it’s important for the FDA to change because we recognize that we live in a more advanced, scientific time than when the ban was placed,” Clark said.
“[The ban] is a holdover of fear and hysteria about HIV and AIDS and how people got it,” said Rasmussen (who, as a gay man, is affected by the ban—as is Mayor Ed Murray). “The assumption was that all gay men…were potential carriers.” AIDS was originally called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” and “Gay cancer.”
A spokesperson for the FDA responded to PubliCola’s inquiries with the agency’s standard claim that it does not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Technically, that’s true: The ban doesn’t refer to sexual orientation per se but rather to “Men who have sex with men (MSM),” since as a group men who have sex with men are at heightened risk of HIV infection. In the US in 2010, 78 percent of new HIV infections, and a little more than half of overall HIV infections, were among MSM, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As Rasmussen pointed out, though, this is close to being a distinction without difference: “But that’s what gay men do. They have sex with men.”
“It’s not who you have sex with,” he added, “it’s what your health status is that should be the concern.”