LGBTQ advocates have long considered the nation’s ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men a blatant form of persistent and ongoing discrimination. Now that the country is entering its most severe blood shortage in more than a decade, government officials, including the President, are speaking out, saying it may be time to finally lift the ban.
Tony Morrison of ABC News reported that “for the first time, the Biden administration is commenting on the Food and Drug Administration’s long-time blood donation guidelines, which are impacting the LGBTQ+ community by preventing gay and bisexual men from being eligible blood donors.”
According to Morrison, “The statement, made by a White House official exclusively to ABC News, acknowledges the painful origins of the policy and comes on the heels of the American Red Cross declaring their first-ever national blood crisis last week, as supplies at hospitals and blood banks become dangerously low.”
In a policy little known to many outside the LGBTQ community, gay and bisexual men are currently banned from donating blood in any capacity unless they have abstained from sex for at least three months.
“The rule applies to gay and bisexual men who are monogamous and those who test HIV negative and are practicing safe sex,” Morrison added. “It also includes gay and bisexual COVID-19 survivors who wish to donate convalescent plasma, rich with antibodies, for research.”
The country’s current ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men began during the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980s when testing for the illnesses was at its most primitive stages. In 1983, the FDA declared a lifetime ban on blood donations for all men who had had sex with other men after 1977.
That FDA ban remained in place until 2015, when the agency instead enacted a 12-month deferral period, meaning it would only take blood from gay or bisexual men if they hadn’t engaged in sexual activity in over a year. In 2020, that deferral period was again shortened, this time to three months. But both LGBTQ rights advocates and many health advocates say even that shortened deferral period is too long, especially when blood is in scarce supply — like it is today.
In its statement to ABC, the White House said, “The legacy of bans on blood donation continues to be painful, especially for LGBTQ+ communities. The President is committed to ensuring that this policy is based on science, not fiction or stigma. While there are no new decisions to announce at the moment, the FDA is currently supporting the ‘ADVANCE’ study, a scientific study to develop relevant scientific evidence and inform any potential policy changes.”
The currently underway ADVANCE study (which stands for Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts in Eligibility) was started in 2020 by several major blood donation organizations, including the American Red Cross, Vitalant and OneBlood. However, while the study was supposed to be completed by late 2021, it remains ongoing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although there isn’t any data suggesting a policy change would lead to a significant increase in blood donations, Morrison reported that lifting the deferral period could make an additional 360,000 men eligible to donate blood.
According to LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, this increased number of blood donors “could help save the lives of more than a million people.”
The American Red Cross agreed with President Biden, saying it was time to end discriminatory blood donation practices.
“We believe blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation, and we’re committed to achieving this goal,” American Red Cross said in a statement.