FDA weighs lifting ban on blood donations from gay men

Advisers for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will meet next week to decide whether gay men should be allowed to donate blood, the agency’s biggest step yet toward changing the 30-year-old prohibition.

If the FDA accepts the recommendation from its advisory board, it would roll back a policy that has faced mounting criticism from LGBT advocates and some members of Congress for more than four years.

“We’ve got the ball rolling. I feel like this is a tide-turning vote,” said Ryan James Yezak, an LGBT activist who founded the National Gay Blood Drive and will speak at next week’s meeting. “There’s been a lot of feet dragging and I think they’re realizing it now.”

Reconsidering the policy will be the first agenda item for the Advisory Blood Products Advisory Committee when it meets Dec. 2

Critics of the ban, which was enacted during the national AIDS epidemic in 1983 and was last updated in 1992, say it ignores mounds of scientific evidence concluding that blood donations pose no risk than the greater public if properly screened.

Groups such as the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers voiced support for the policy change this month, calling the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” The American Medical Association voted to end the ban last summer.

“The public health rationale for this ban has kind of been packed away,” said Glenn Cohen, a medical ethics professor at Harvard Law School who criticized the ban in an article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Members of Congress have also thrown in their support, led by those in the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

Gay rights groups are also increasingly targeting the policy, bolstered by recent victories like the military eliminating its “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy and the Supreme Court striking down major portions of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Fighting the ban on blood donations is a logical next step for their advocacy, Cohen said.

“It’s a little crazy that you can shed blood for your country, but you can’t donate blood to another human being,” he added.

Some advocates say that people are surprised to hear the policy still exists despite the decades of advances in research.

Richard Dedor, an author and speaker who is gay, remembers trying to donate bone marrow about 18 months ago to help a family friend.

As he was filling out the form, he was shocked when he read a question asking if he had had sex with men.

“I sat there for a second and thought, should I be honest, or should I lie?” he recalled.

He said he decided to answer the question honestly, and realized then that he would get involved in the fight to strike down the ban.

“Others in my exact same situation do lie because they believe so vehemently that they have the right — forget the right, the ability — to keep the blood supply and the bone marrow supply safe,” he said. “We have the ability to help save lives.”

The FDA says that it still asks about men who have sex with men because no other questions are able to identify people with same risks to sexually transmitted infections, like HIV.

“In the future, improved questionnaires may be helpful to better select safe donors, but this cannot be assumed without evidence,” according to the agency’s website.

The FDA is not compelled to follow the recommendation from its advisory group, which includes more than a dozen top scientists from across the country – though it often does.

“Following deliberations taking into consideration the available evidence, the FDA will issue revised guidance, if appropriate,” a spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez wrote in a statement, though she declined to provide details about who would make the decision or when that could happen.

Members of the advisory committee did not return requests for comment.

A new FDA policy would likely not completely eliminate the ban, instead allowing men to donate only if they have not had sex with another man for one year.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said that a policy with a one-year deferral would be “still discriminatory” and he hopes the ban will be reversed in full.

"I am encouraged by the continuation of this conversation to change current, outdated policies, which will bring equality for the LGBT community while still protecting the U.S. blood supply,” he wrote in a statement to The Hill.

Yessak, who founded the National Gay Blood Drive, said he believes a complete elimination of the ban is “only a matter of time.”

He pointed to accumulating pressure he’s seen against the policy. Over the last two years, participation has tripled for his blood drive, where gay men show up with “proxies” who donate in their place.

“This is really big,” he said. “It’s a huge step, but there’s a lot more work to do.”