Policy

Democrats Try Again to Lift FDA Blood Donor Ban for Gays

Lawmakers say policy perpetuates stereotype but chances for change may be slim

House Democrats are urging the FDA once again to abandon its practice of banning sexually active gay men from donating blood after the Orlando shooting. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democrats said Tuesday they may try to pass legislation to end a Food and Drug Administration policy that prevents gay and bisexual men from donating blood unless they have been celibate for one year.  

Such a measure may be difficult to get past Republicans. Even President Barack Obama’s administration has been reluctant to urge the FDA to change its policy, saying that the decision should solely be based on scientific evidence provided by the agency.  

But the Obama Administration did lift  a lifetime ban against donations by gay and bisexual men in December, a decades-old policy that dates back to the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  

[ LGBT Caucus Leader Calls for Changes to Blood Donation Ban ] All this came on the same day a handful of House Democrats signed a letter to the FDA urging the agency to eliminate even the one-year ban, what they called an “unrealistic” policy that perpetuated an old stigma.   

“[T]he 12-month deferral policy, which suggests that the sexual relationships of [gay] men and transgender women inherently post a risk of HIV transmission, furthers a stigma that we have persistently fought to eliminate,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. “The FDA questionnaire should reflect risk-based behaviors as opposed to sexual orientation.”

 

After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where a gunman killed left 49 people and injured 53 more, blood banks were so overwhelmed by long lines that they asked people to stop coming.  

Among those turned away were sexually active gay men. That was because of the FDA's policy that prohibits gay men who have been sexually active in the last 12 months from donating blood.  

The National Gay Blood Drive , a group that wants to overturn the ban on blood donations by sexually active gay men, noted the irony in a statement after the shooting on Sunday.  

“...We find ourselves in a situation where the victims directly affected by this tragedy and in need of lifesaving blood are the very people banned from donating it.  

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings said Tuesday that he would encourage his Republican counterparts to join the efforts.  

“Interestingly enough, their LGBTQ friends need blood too,” the Florida Democrat said.  

Eleven House Democrats who spoke about the ban on Tuesday, some donning rainbow ribbons on their lapels, said the FDA’s approach was an “insult” that was “morally bankrupt.” They urged the agency to adopt a scientific, risk-based approach not rooted in an individual’s sexual orientation.  

Sexually active gay men are not the only ones banned from giving blood, according to FDA guidelines .  

It defers indefinitely anyone who has ever injected drugs or exchanged sex for money or drugs. Other 12-month deferrals include those who have had sex with a person who has ever tested positive for HIV, had sex for money or drugs or injected drugs.  

Those who have received blood transfusions in the last 12 months also may not donate.  

The effort to change the FDA’s policies about blood donations by gay and bisexual men comes after the House took the unprecedented move last month of defeating an appropriations bill, in part due to an amendment that would have barred federal contractors from discriminating against workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

During a conference meeting before the vote on the Energy-Water Appropriations Bill, Rep. Rick W. Allen led the opening prayer by reading a Bible verse that called for the death of homosexuals.  

Another amendment that defended North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law also contributed to the appropriations bill getting shot down.  

The Obama administration has shied away from suggesting when it would completely lift the ban. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that policy changes would have to come from the agency itself.  

“This was a decision that was made by the FDA, and it was made consistent with the advice that our scientists have offered about the best way to insure the safety of the blood supply,” Earnest said. “The president believes that when it comes to ... these kinds of questions, that we’re going to rely on scientific evidence.”

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