Precautions meant to secure safety of blood supply are outdated and discriminatory

David Rubin

This week, as in the past, Lawrence will host a blood drive for the Community Blood Center in the Warch Campus Center’s Somerset room.
These blood drives are important and noteworthy events. They afford busy Lawrentians an opportunity to do something helpful and outside of their studies, without having to venture off-campus or set aside a major chunk of time.
Giving blood is one of the easiest and most effective ways for a Lawrence student to regain a sense of perspective, so easily lost – for many of us at least – by those daily pressures blown out of proportion by the smallness and intensity of our community.
With this in mind, however, I would like to take issue with one aspect of the blood donation process. I do not wish to attack what I consider to be a vitally important volunteer activity. My goal is only to raise awareness of an issue that many Lawrentians might not understand completely, by virtue of never having had to confront it themselves.
Back in 1983, in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted a lifetime ban on blood donation for MSM, or men who have have sex with other men. This policy “indefinitely defers” any man who – at any time since 1977 – has had a sexual encounter with someone of the same sex.
This ban was born at a time when the general public was just beginning to understand HIV/AIDS. In the disease’s early years, it was commonly and tragically misunderstood as a “gay cancer.” It is common knowledge that the disease struck the gay community first, with disproportionate force, causing a stigma that remains to this day, as evidenced by the policy in question.
In the years since then, however, we have come to understand that HIV/AIDS is a broader threat, a health risk for all peoples regardless of sexual orientation. Although HIV/AIDS is still particularly relevant in the LGBT community, most people now understand and accept its universality.
It is this shift in public opinion and scientific understanding that led John Kerry – along with a host of other U.S. Senate Democrats – to send an open letter to the FDA in March of this year, requesting a re-evaluation of an aging policy.
In this letter, and in an Op/Ed piece for Bay Windows, a New England LGBT newspaper, Kerry argued the policy’s ineffectiveness. According to Kerry, the rules on the books for heterosexual donors are much more lenient. There is a disturbing double standard indicating that the rule against gay male donation is less a product of safety concerns than of prejudice.
Allow me to illustrate the disconnect with a hypothetical situation. Meet Ennis. Ennis is a heterosexual male who, a few months ago, had sex with a woman who later revealed herself to be HIV-positive. Ennis is not HIV-positive, but because of this contact, he is banned from donating blood for one year. However, after one year has passed, he will once again be eligible.
Now meet Jack. Jack also identifies as straight, but he has had a sexual relationship with another man – the same man – for the past five years. Both Jack and his partner know that they are relatively healthy, and that they are not HIV-positive. Most people would agree that this is a relatively safe situation, sexually speaking. Jack has had only one partner, and he knows that his partner is healthy.
But, in the eyes of the FDA, Jack and his partner pose more of a threat than the aforementioned heterosexual couple. Whereas Ennis will be banned from donating for a year because of his brush with an HIV-positive female partner, Jack will be banned for life, even though he has had no sexual contact with an HIV-positive partner.
Does that discrepancy make any sense? No.
Kerry suggests that advances in scientific testing in the years since the ban was instated have made a huge difference, vastly reducing the risk of a gay man – or anyone – donating tainted blood because he was unaware of his HIV-positive status. Now, by employing these sophisticated tests at the correct intervals, technicians can be assured that the risk of tainted blood slipping under the radar is virtually zero.
Senator Kerry and his colleagues suggest that our country has too much need for the FDA to disproportionately block an entire population from contributing. It is my hope that this policy will change in the near future, and developments like the senators’ open letter seem to suggest that change is afoot.
Again, I do not aim to make potential donors feel bad about their ability to give, nor do I aim to cast unnecessary doubt on what remains a noble process. I draw attention to this issue only because I think it is important for everyone, particularly students like us who are busy figuring out our moral and ideological place in the world, to be aware of discrimination in all of its forms, subtle and blatant.
Sitting on a couch in the Somerset room, cruising through the eligibility form, filling out all the right boxes – it becomes all too easy to forget the implications of what you are reading. Please, don’t forget. When we forget, we stop asking difficult questions.
To those of you who are eligible: keep donating, but do so with complete awareness of the nature of the institution. Often, as in this case, our institutions are far from perfect, and we do ourselves a terrible disservice if we gloss over the fine print and ignore the more uncomfortable details.