Metro Weekly

Congressional leaders call for end to gay blood ban with behavior-based donor screenings

Advocates call for categorical bans or deferral periods for certain groups, like gay and bisexual men

gay blood ban

Blood donation – Photo: Matej Kastelic

A group of congressional leaders has introduced a resolution calling for the need to develop individual, behavioral and science-based risk screenings for people wishing to donate blood or blood products like plasma.

The resolution calls for individual risk assessments for donors, rather than relying on categorical bans or deferral periods imposed on certain groups, such as the three-month deferral period currently imposed on gay and bisexual men, regardless of whether they are in a committed monogamous relationship.

That three-month deferral period was lowered from a 12-month period back in April after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and health experts began worrying about a potential shortfall of blood due to a decrease in people donating as they attempted to socially distance themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resolution notes the “double standard” that applies to sexually active gay and bisexual men that does not apply to their heterosexual counterparts, and calls the current three-month deferral period “overly stringent given the scientific evidence, advanced testing methods, and the safety and quality control measures in place within the different FDA-qualified blood donating centers.”

The resolution also cites a Williams Institute study estimating that eliminating the categorical deferral period could result in as many as 4.2 million newly eligible male donors, of which 360,600 would likely donate, generating 615,300 additional pints of blood.

“[I]t is the sense of the House of Representatives that policies governing blood and blood product donation in the United States should — 1) be grounded in science; 2) minimize deferral periods; 3) be based on individual risk factors; 4) not unfairly single out any group of individuals; 5) and allow donation by all those who can safely do so.”

See also: Gay N.Y. state senator slams blood bank for rejecting him as a donor due to outdated screening guidelines

The members of Congress behind the resolution include Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.). 

“Our nation faces a severe blood shortage, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever we need to remove any impediment that needlessly prevents Americans from donating blood to help save lives,” Schiff said in a statement. “There is a large contingent of healthy people that are able and willing to donate blood and plasma, but antiquated regulations prevent them from doing so.

“This resolution calls for a repeal of discriminatory guidelines against members of the LGBTQ community, and encourages them to be replaced with science-based criteria for individual-risk assessment. It’s long past time these changes were made, especially during the current global crisis.”

“As we saw after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, crises cause us to consider the national blood supply, as everyday Americans step up to help in any way they can. Yet, the reality is that our blood banks too often struggle to meet the need,” Quigley said in a statement. “It is imperative we establish guidelines based on the most current science and that our policies are evidence based. No one should be turned away purely because of their sexual orientation.”

LGBTQ groups expressed their support for the resolution, urging the Food & Drug Administration to adopt such guidelines for donors going forward.

“Federal policy for donating blood should be based on science, not based on fear and bias,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement. “As the global pandemic wears on, we must continue to push the federal government to change this policy, which is not only discriminatory but undermines efforts to support and protect our communities.”

“Lambda Legal is pleased to see members of Congress pushing the FDA to further modify blood donation criteria to eliminate discrimination against gay and bisexual men,” Scott Schoettes, legal counsel and the HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “A shorter deferral period applied to all people engaged in certain risk behaviors, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, will create a truly nondiscriminatory policy. Lambda Legal looks forward to the adoption of an individualized risk assessment for every potential blood donor, thereby ensuring a safe and abundant blood supply.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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