FDA lifts lifetime blood ban for men who have sex with men, moves to one year deferral

Morgan Kelly

Wayne Glass wants to help save lives by donating blood.

But he hasn’t been allowed to donate because of a Food and Drug Administration lifetime ban deferring blood donations from men who have had sex with other men any time after 1977.

On Dec. 23, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft for the lifetime blood ban on men who have sex with men to be lifted.

Men who have had sex with other men at any time since 1977 — the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States — are deferred as blood donors, according to the FDA.

“This is because men who have sex with men are at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion,” the FDA states.

Beth Phillips, the public relations and marketing manager for LifeServe blood center, said, “While the life ban is still in place, the FDA is taking the necessary steps to see that it is changed.”

The changed policy would still ban men who have had sex with men within the last year from donating.

Glass, LGBT Student Services volunteer, intern and practicum graduate adviser, said that when Iowa State has a blood drive, he feels terrible because he cannot donate.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s silly that I can’t donate. The blood is tested, regardless,” he continued. “There should be no ban. We should allow men who have sex with men to donate.”

It’s a heated debate full of political nuances, said Brad Freihoefer, director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Student Services.

“There’s a lot of unpacking to do. It’s not just a ‘gay issue’ anymore. The question we want to pose now is one of equity,” Freihoefer continued. “I feel the FDA is struggling to find the correct question to ask and see who has a high chance of transmitting HIV.”

Men who have sex with men represent 2 percent of the U.S. population and it is the population most affected by HIV, according to the FDA

In 2010, 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. were men who had sex with men, 77 percent of which were traced to male-to-male sexual contact.

In terms of the rule being discriminatory, the FDA states: 

“FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion-transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”

If there was a ban, Freihoefer asked, then what’s the incentive for kids to get tested for HIV/AIDs?

“We all have a responsibility in health, whether that is our own personal health or the health of others,” he said.

An estimated 29,800 men who have sex with men are living with HIV infections, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, making up 78 percent of new HIV infections among males.

Men who have sex with other men are not the only ones deferred from giving blood.

Others deferred include people who abuse intravenous drugs, people who have received transplants of animal tissue or organs, people who have recently traveled to or lived abroad in certain countries and people engaged in sex in return for money or drugs.

According to bloodbook.com, a typical pre-donation form asks about 57 questions, seven of which ask about sexual partners in the last 12 months to five years, and two ask about male-to-male sexual activity.

“A lot of people I know have lied on the forms. They want to donate blood and help. They have to lie and that’s so unfortunate,” Glass said. “Of course people shouldn’t be lying, but that’s what it’s coming down to sometimes.”

Freihoefer said he believes these men may be lying due to their socioeconomic status. He said maybe they need the money that comes with giving blood, or maybe they have a strong urge to do the right thing.

“All our donors are treated with respect and fairness,” Phillips said. “So we ask that those men be honest with us. If they do check yes that they’re a man who has had sex with a man, then they are deferred.”

LifeServe blood center serves 110 hospitals in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.

“We ask for honesty so we can provide safe blood for the community,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the Des Moines center does all the testing of the blood.

The blood undergoes 14 different tests, 11 of which are for sexually transmitted diseases. The HIV/AIDs tests are included in those 11.

“The problem with HIV/AIDs testing is there is an 11-day incubation period. That’s why we have precautions,” she said.

“Is this ban just fear?” Freihoefer said. “There was at one time a huge scare and spread of the HIV/AIDs virus. It was right here. People were carrying banners around the Memorial Union with names of those who lost their lives to AIDS.”

He said this issue is not just black and white. It is multifaceted and filled with difficult questions to answer.

“It’s a step forward … but is it really a step forward? I’m optimistic that in the next days, months, years, the ban will be taken away,” Glass said. “When we look at marriage equality, transphobia, transgender people having rights, yes we are acquiring more rights, but we still have ways to go.”