In this country, if you're a man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977, FDA policy bans you from donating blood. But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) would like to see that policy changed, and the Puget Sound Blood Center wholeheartedly agrees.
A June 11 letter penned by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and signed by Murray calls the current restrictions on gay men donating blood "indefensible," noting that since the FDA allows a man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman to give blood after waiting only one year, the current lifetime ban on gay men creates a sizable and unnecessary double standard. The letter argues for an adjustment to the deferment period for men who've had sex with men, and for the development of alternate blood-donor criteria for this group.
Current federal blood-donation regulations go back to the early '80s, the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. However, much has changed since then—from the highly sensitive blood tests now at blood banks' disposal to more in-depth knowledge of the disease and how it spreads.
The Murray-backed letter was sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after the body's advisory committee deemed the ban on gay men "suboptimal." The department subsequently launched a pilot study to assess alternate criteria and a possible adjustment of the deferral period.
"This marks another step in the push for equality and understanding for the LGBT community," Murray says. "I am hopeful the findings will reverse the current discriminatory policy and allow for healthy Americans to once again help in the effort to save lives through blood donation."
The Puget Sound Blood Center supports the effort. The agency's director of communications, David Larsen, says that blood testing has improved dramatically, making the current regulations unnecessary. He adds that PSBC is strongly in favor of reducing the deferral period, saying such a change—as has been made in several European countries—could be implemented without risk to the nation's blood supply. "What we knew about HIV in the early '80s was not too much," says Larsen. "Within the medical and scientific community, there's a pretty broad agreement that the current [policy regarding gay men donating blood] is outmoded."
While Murray's letter references the threat of blood shortages at our nation's blood banks as further evidence that the ban on healthy gay men is ridiculous and counterproductive, Larsen says that for PSBC this is an issue of equality, not supply. Whatever happens, Larsen says, changes should be expected to result in plenty of debate and discussion.
"We understand the FDA is contemplative and deliberative," says Larsen. "We'd be surprised if we see any change in the next two years."