LGBT activists around the world are demanding an end to bans on blood and tissue donations by gay men in countries around the world.
According to the Red Cross, “every two seconds someone in the US needs blood,” which adds up to needing “more than 41,000 blood donations” every day. The site goes on to say that “although an estimated 38% of the US population is eligible to donate, less than 10% actually do each year”–and yet millions of people in the US alone are barred from donating blood for life simply due to a decades-old policy.
Recently, a number of Democratic politicians began pressuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to update its donation policies in the wake of headlines regarding a teenage suicide victim, whose family was allowed to donate many of his organs, but his eyes were rejected almost entirely because of his orientation.
Iowa resident Alexander Betts Jr., known as AJ, took his own life in July 2013 after being outed as gay and subsequently bullied for months. His family honored his wish to be an organ donor, but while his heart, liver, lungs and kidneys were taken for transplant, they were stunned when they were told his eyes could not be.
Under current FDA policy, tissue donations cannot be accepted from men who have had sex with men (MSM) within the last five years, and his family could not say for certain if AJ had been sexually active.
AJ’s other organs may have been considered safe for transplant because they will require recipients to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives, and even if a donor has been infected too recently to be detected, many common immunosuppression drugs also have anti-retroviral properties.
In contrast, patients with corneal implants only use corticosteroid eye drops to prevent rejection, and not necessarily for life. However, the cornea does not contain any blood vessels, and while traces of HIV have been found in tear fluid, the amount present is insufficient to cause infection. There are zero known cases of HIV transmission via tears.
Regardless, the rejection of AJ’s eyes despite the acceptance of other organs shows that FDA policies on the matter are so inconsistent as to demand review.
To address the issue, dozens of Democratic lawmakers co-signed a letter to the US secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Sylvia Mathews Burwell. It reads in part, “We write to express our continued concern regarding current policies governing blood, organ and tissue donation by men who have sex with men (MSM) and to bring your attention to an incident in Iowa that highlights the inherent unfairness and inconsistency in the content and application of these policies…[which]continue to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, promote discrimination, and discourage individuals from seeking other appropriate health services.”
It goes on to detail how MSMs have been banned from donating blood since 1983, when it was known that HIV is transmitted via bodily fluids but was otherwise poorly understood. In nearly all of the countries that follow FDA guidelines, any man that has had sex with another man even once since 1977 is banned from donating blood for life. At the time, reliable tests for detecting HIV were still nonexistent, and because MSM were most likely to be infected, the lifetime ban made sense.
Over thirty years later, science has made incredible progress against HIV and AIDS, especially in regards to detection, but FDA policy has not kept up with the times, resulting in the rejection of badly needed blood, tissue, and organ donation.
The letter thus concludes, “We urge you to develop blood, organ and tissue donation policies that are consistent, based in current science, and designed to ensure all healthy donors can follow AJ’s compassionate example.”
A similar battle is being waged in the UK, where as of 2011, MSM in England, Wales, and Scotland can only donate blood if it has been more than twelve months since they last had sex with a man. (In Northern Ireland, MSM remain banned from donating for life.)
Many activists are calling even the one-year deferral discriminatory, and the number of organizations and even politicians demanding fair blood donation rules are steadily increasing. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, a Member of Parliament, is calling for an “urgent review” of policies regarding blood donors.
According to Gay Star News, Lucas stated: “There is absolutely a moral obligation to ensure that people receiving blood donations are not put at unnecessary risk. There is also an obligation to ensure that potential donors are not unfairly discriminated against. It’s seriously concerning that there’s not been a formal review for more than three years – which means up to date evidence has not be taken into account.”
Additionally, she said, “The pressure for a review is mounting. Our health service is in urgent need of increased supplies of safe blood. Only 4 per cent of adults are currently blood donors. If they are to be non-discriminatory, the rules setting out restrictions on who can give blood must be based on up-to-date evidence and cannot be based on outdated information.”
Lucas is also one of the co-sponsors of a multi-partisan bill, tabled by Tory (Conservative) Party member Michael Fabricant, intended to change blood donation policies to reflect current medical science.
Blood bank shortages vary even from city to city, but regarding the US, the website Be The Giving Type notes, “If only one more percent of all Americans would give blood…shortages would disappear for the foreseeable future.”