Health Care

Warren presses FDA to lift ban on blood donations from gay men

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) are applying new pressure on the Obama administration to lift long-time restrictions on blood donations from gay men in the wake of the Orlando attacks.

The two senators, who have been long-time critics of the policy, wrote to the head of the Food and Drug Administration on Monday blasting what they call a “discriminatory” policy.

“This tragedy shines an even sharper spotlight” on the need to eliminate the restrictions, they wrote in a letter about a week after a shooting at a gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and more than 50 more wounded.

The letter was signed by 22 other senators, including the vulnerable GOP Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) A similar letter in the House collected 118 signatures on Monday, including five Republicans.

It’s the largest number of Republicans to back the effort in more than 10 years of Democrats trying to change it.

Warren and Baldwin, the Senate’s first openly gay lawmaker, are the latest high-profile Democrats calling for action after Orlando.

{mosads}Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters last week she called the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hours after the shooting to talk about changing the policy. Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, also said he backed the effort.

Both Wasserman Schultz and Becerra suggested they would be willing to boost FDA funding if it helped speed up the change.

But the letter also appears to acknowledge the slim short-term prospects of changing the FDA’s policy.

The FDA already announced last December that it would partly roll back its 20-year-old policy, and that decision took months of meetings and years of science to support. Gay men are now allowed to donate blood, but only if they have been celibate for one year — a rule that LGBT advocates say remains a de facto ban.

In their letter to the FDA this week, the Democratic senators ask for details about how the agency is working to implement its new policy as well as “work to support future changes” to the policy. Democrats and public health experts have urged the FDA to move to a “risk-based” policy that is based on behavior and not sexual orientation. 

After the shooting, it became clear that not all blood banks had adopted the FDA’s latest rule.

Orlando’s main blood bank, called OneBlood, said it hadn’t yet adopted the new standards when it put out a call for donations last week. That meant anyone who has a sexual history with other men — even if it hasn’t been within a year — couldn’t donate. 

Groups from the American Red Cross to the American Medical Association have said the ban on blood donations from sexually active gay and bisexual men is medically unwarranted.

But some within the FDA and its outside advisory panels remain firmly opposed to changing the policy until there’s more proof that it wouldn’t create risks for the blood supply.

In a statement to Reuters this week, the FDA argued there is not enough scientific evidence to lift the restrictions.

“We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it,” spokeswoman Tara Goodin said in a statement. “That being said, the FDA is committed to continuing to reevaluate its blood donor deferral policies as new scientific information becomes available.”

The White House has also separately said it has no plans to lift restrictions in the wake of the shooting.

Tags Elizabeth Warren Mark Kirk Tammy Baldwin Xavier Becerra

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