New Blood Donation Policy Does Not Go Far Enough

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December 21, 2015
Scott Schoettes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced new guidelines for blood donations that change the current lifetime ban for men who have sex with men (MSM) to a one-year ban. The guidelines also make clear that transgender individuals may self-report their gender for purposes of applying the MSM policy. While a step in the right direction, the new guidance falls short of what many recognize as the optimal policy for enhancing the safety of the blood supply while ensuring it does not discriminate against gay, bisexual and transgender people, one based on the conduct of the potential donor rather than the donor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and HIV Project Director, issued the following statement:

“The guidance published today does not go far enough. An evidence-based policy would focus exclusively on the conduct of the potential donor, rather than the person’s identity with regards to sexual orientation, gender identity or perceived risk factors based on the person’s identity. Risk behaviors do not have a sexual orientation or gender identity. Within 45 days of exposure, currently required blood donation testing detects all known serious blood-borne pathogens, including HIV. Therefore, deferring anyone longer than two months is not necessary and does not discernably enhance the safety of the blood supply.

“We are glad that the proposed new guidelines allow a subset of gay and bisexual men who have abstained from sex for a year to donate, and we are pleased transgender people will be allowed to self-report their gender in the donation process, but the policy still excludes the vast majority of gay, bisexual and transgender men from donating. Given all we now know about HIV and the activities that do and do not present a significant risk of HIV transmission, there is simply no reason that a nondiscriminatory policy ensuring the continued safety of the blood supply could not be put in place today.

“We are hopeful that the FDA will follow through on its promise to continue examining the blood donation policies in light of current scientific knowledge and, like other countries, such as Italy and Spain, will eliminate the U.S. deferral based on sexual orientation. The solution we proposed really is quite simple and straight-forward, and we remain hopeful that the FDA will recognize this and continue moving us toward such an individualized risk-based policy.

“Lambda Legal will continue to work towards real reform in our nation’s blood donation policy. Millions of people rely on blood donations for life-threatening medical situations, and our screening process should maximize the amount of available, safe blood. Screening blood should be based on up-to-date scientific knowledge and experience, not unfounded fear, generalizations and stereotypes. The policy remains discriminatory in nature, and continues its negative and stigmatizing effects.”

Lambda Legal, other advocates and the medical establishment, including the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, America’s Blood Centers, and the American Medical Association, have called for the FDA to end the discriminatory and unnecessary lifetime ban. Last December, the FDA announced its plans to change the lifetime deferral to a one-year deferral for MSM and subsequently issued proposed guidelines. Today’s release followed a comment period on the draft guidelines, during which Lambda Legal, other advocates and medical professional associations recommended a policy based on the risk activities in which the donor has engaged. These groups also recommended substantially shortening the deferral period to reflect the significant strides made in detecting HIV and other blood-borne pathogens.

Blood Ban, HIV