Dems call for end of blood donation ban from gay men


Democrats in Congress are reviving a national push to allow gay men to donate blood following the deadly mass shooting that targeted a gay nightclub in Orlando.

The massacre early Sunday morning in which a gunman killed 49 people and injured or wounded 53 others drove up the local demand for blood donations to help survivors. But some of those most affected by the tragedy have been turned away from blood banks because of a decades-old Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule.

{mosads}The FDA policy — which has been condemned by the American Medical Association — has sparked national outrage that advocates now hope to convert into long-awaited action. 

The LGBT Equality Caucus, led by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), is giving new life to the years-old campaign for the FDA to repeal its blood donation ban.

Polis said Monday that the enormity of the tragedy in Orlando, which is now classified as the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history, could bring enough attention to the policy to force the FDA to repeal it. 

“It’s really exposed the moral bankruptcy of the blood ban and showed how it’s contrary to the goal of public health,” Polis said in a phone interview.

 The ban remains a divisive issue among government health officials, even as groups such as the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers call it “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”

And now pressure is mounting on the FDA in the aftermath of the shooting: After a local blood bank, OneBlood, put out an official call for blood donations on Sunday, a rumor spread that it was temporarily easing the FDA rules to allow men who have had sex with other men — MSM, in the agency’s parlance — to donate.

OneBlood quickly refuted the rumors, intensifying outrage among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. On Twitter, hashtags such as “My Blood is as Good as Yours” gained traction with help from Polis.  

The push for change has wide support among Democrats. More than 100 lawmakers signed a letter to the FDA last summer, when it last reviewed the policy. It included lawmakers such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), as well as Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). 

The effort could also get a boost from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has been one of the most vocal critics of the ban. The progressive icon is now considered a vice presidential contender for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. 

A Department of Health and Human Services panel recently voted almost unanimously to ease the policy, putting it in direct contrast with an FDA advisory panel that has repeatedly warned against repealing the policy, saying it is too difficult to know the risks to the nation’s blood supply.

“There’s too many questions in science that aren’t answerable,” Corey Dubin, a member of the committee, told The Hill in 2014, after the panel decided not to call for the repeal and instead recommended more research. “With the science so far, it’s a leap of faith.”

Opponents of the ban have seen some success in the past year: The FDA announced in December that it would partially roll back the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men.

But the new policy only allows gay men to donate if they have refrained from having sex with another man for at least 12 months — an approach that was sharply condemned as a “de facto” ban by LGBT groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. That one-year waiting period also applies to women who have had sex with men who have sex with other men. 

In Orlando, OneBlood said it had not yet updated its procedures to match the latest FDA guidance and is still enforcing a lifetime ban on blood donations from MSM.

In 1983, with HIV on the rise, the FDA launched a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood in an effort to reduce transmission of the virus that causes AIDS, which remained in place until December of last year.

FDA officials said the policy update was based on “the best available scientific evidence” and noted that better screening methods have drastically reduced HIV transmission rates from transfusions — from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 1.47 million, according to the agency.

“We will continue to actively conduct research in this area and further revise our policies as new data emerge,” Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said at the time.

Even before the Orlando shooting, LGBT activists were planning to raise the issue on Capitol Hill this week. 

In a twist of fate, a coalition of LGBT groups in New York City had planned a press conference at the steps of City Hall on Tuesday to press federal health officials on the ban. Their staff members had already made travel plans for Capitol Hill later this week.

The group, which includes the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said Monday it is retooling the event “now that we are painfully living through an unthinkable example.” 

“Many people in Orlando, out of an outpour in their community, found out for the first time they’re not allowed to donate blood simply because of who they have sex with,” one of the group’s advocates, Anthony Hayes, said in an interview. 

“I have a feeling there will be more of a call to action that will take shape after tomorrow’s press conference,” he said. 

The blood ban is hardly the only LGBT-related issue on Democrats’ radar. 

Rallying behind Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is gay, party leaders have been pushing legislation to prevent federal contractors from discriminating against the LGBT community. Maloney’s bill passed the House earlier in the month as an amendment to a water spending bill, but it went no further when lawmakers killed the underlying package — largely to protest the Maloney language. 

Democrats are also pushing legislation sponsored by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to promote the tallying of LGBT people on federal surveys. 

Rep. Mark Takano (Calif.), another openly gay Democrat, spoke for many in his party on Monday in condemning a culture where guns are easily obtained and “hateful rhetoric towards LGBT people and other minority groups is still far too common.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, echoed that message, accusing Republicans — particularly presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump — of promoting intolerance that encourages violence.

“We’ve seen very few of our Republican colleagues also call it the hate crime that it is,” Luján said Monday during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “In the end, all of the hateful rhetoric, the bigotry, the racism, the misogyny, the bullying — it has to stop.”

This story was updated at 8:05 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton

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