Bias Plagues Blood Collection

Alex Baden

* This article has been modified from its original version.

I was turned away this year at WJ’s blood drive. I was honest on my questionnaire and, after admitting I had engaged in sexual contact with another male, I was told I could not donate blood.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would like the public to think that it is protecting the health and safety of those patients receiving donated blood by discriminating against candidates for donation who are “men who have had sex with other men, at any time since 1977.” This is not to say that the FDA should change the language of its policy, but it’s fairly obvious that the bureau is practicing exclusionary regulations targeted at the gay population. So here we are, at an impasse where federal organizations are granted the authority to employ vague terms with the intention of eliminating a control group from the blood supply based solely on outdated bigotry.

According to the FDA, “This is because [men who have had sex with men] are, as a group, at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion.” Well that sounds like an awfully powerful argument, who can question such indelible logic? If the FDA thinks they can eradicate an entire social minority from its donor pool with obsolete reasoning, then it is sorely mistaken.

The FDA seems to believes that because the gay community was originally connected to the HIV epidemic, it continues to be today. Since the discovery of the virus, the phenomenon has changed dramatically.  One Innova Blood Services employee affirmed that HIV is definitely not limited to any control group in modern times. In recent years, it has become increasingly more prevalent in women. Do you see the FDA banning women from donating blood? Absolutely not.

Since 1977, the AIDS epidemic has stretched around the globe, taking more than 25 million lives and virtually condemning millions more to an eventual death from the disease. These are fairly compelling statistics and of course, we want to ensure that our blood supply is entirely clean of any infected blood. Nearly infallible tests are used today to determine whether or not blood is infected by the HIV virus to a point where the chance of receiving infected blood is around one in 2 million. Though that number may still raise concern, such a miniscule chance could be attributed to any control group, not just the gay community.

Is it really practical with so many anticipating blood transfusions, to limit the donor pool? According to several blood banks and the Red Cross, the policy is “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” The FDA has even acknowledged that this practice eliminates a donor population of over 112,000. Our society can’t allow discrimination of such a large group, especially considering that the Red Cross has frequently reported that the current blood shortage could lead to severe consequences. Red Cross President and CEO Dr. Bernadine Healy said, in the past, “Patients who need blood in emergency situations absolutely depend on a readily available supply. No patient should ever be left to wonder if the lifesaving blood they need will be available to them.”

It makes perfect sense: eliminate those who are at great risk to decrease the risk of infection but don’t eliminate the others at risk because their risk is lesser and… actually, it makes very little sense. As does most of the FDA’s logic in regards to this policy, which is why it needs to change.

Statistics only confuse the issue as the FDA has so aptly demonstrated; this is a conflict over basic rights. The FDA prevented me from giving blood to those in need by ignorantly assuming that, as a sexually active gay man, I am generally promiscuous and more prone to disease. Herein is where the injustice lies.