Ending the Federal Ban on Gay Blood Donations
by Dan Aiello
California Progress Report
On Tuesday the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed AJR 13, the U.S. Blood Donor Nondiscrimination Resolution (Ammiano-D), leapfrogging the legislation over the heads of Republican committee members’ who were united in opposition.
If approved, AJR 13 would call upon the nation’s Food and Drug Administration to end its more than quarter century ban on gay men donating blood to the nation’s blood banks.
The decades-old federal blood donor ban was introduced as a way to assure the U.S. public that the nation’s blood banks were safe at the genesis of the AIDS epidemic here, according to author Randy Shilts pioneering chronicle of the health crisis, And The Band Played On. But according to Shilts research, medical experts have argued since its inception the ban did little more than discriminate and for more than two decades mandatory blood screening has rendered the ban useless.
Freshman assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has decided 26 years of discrimination is long enough.
“Blood has no sexual orientation and the FDA should have no discrimination,” Ammiano explained. “I hope President Obama hears our call to change this shameful and discriminatory practice immediately so we can save more lives.”
“No healthy and willing donor should ever be turned away,” said EQCA Executive Director, Geoff Kors. “This policy unnecessarily discriminates against gay and bisexual men as it provides zero additional protection to our blood supply. To the contrary, the result of this discrimination is fewer units of medically necessary blood.”
AJR 13 calls for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who oversees the FDA, to adopt a policy that would repeal current guidelines. The resolution also calls on the President to publicly encourage this change.
Democratic committee members Mike Feuer (Los Angeles), Julia Brownley (Santa Monica), Noreen Evans (Napa), Dave Jones (Sacramento), Paul Krekorian (Burbank), Ted Lieu (Torrance) and Bill Monning (Carmel), voted in favor of the resolution, while Republicans Van Tran (Costa Mesa), Jim Nielsen (Redding) and freshman Steve Knight (Palmdale-R) opposed it.
Assembly member Knight’s brother, David Knight, is a gay man who is currently banned from donating blood under the existing law.
The ban of gay and bisexual men from donating blood was enacted by the FDA in June, 1983, two years after AIDS was first identified in the country. Only a month earlier, the lack of understanding about how the disease is transmitted helped fuel panic when the nation learned of the first reported AIDS transmission through a blood transfusion to a newborn. The news caused widespread cancellations of both elective and medically necessary surgery while thousands who’d undergone procedures in previous years were left to worry they might have been exposed.
What the public did not know in 1983 was that the Reagan administration through its FDA director, was refusing congressional efforts by congressmen Phillip Burton (D-San Francisco) and Congresswoman Barbara Boxer (D-Marin) to fund AIDS research while choosing a no-cost ban of gay blood donors over mandating the testing of all blood donations similar to the program already in place at Stanford University.
Shilts described political and profit-driven - not scientific - motive for the nation’s existing ban against gay and bisexual male blood donors. Even before the ban was enacted, a $6 dollar lab test was available that would have screened the nation’s blood supply, improved safety and potentially saved lives. Impossible to enforce, the ban of gay and bisexual men (and straight men who have ever engaged in sexual experimentation with another man), a population many at the time believed were somehow culpable for the virus, was a solution that never reliably or verifiably decreased contamination of the nation’s blood supply.
In his book, Shilts cited profit-driven, California blood bank managers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Redwood City, as well as a healthcare industry in denial about the potential magnitude of the epidemic, as responsible for backing the inexpensive but largely ineffective ban as a legitimate and preferable alternative to scientific testing options they believed too costly based on their early perceptions about the potential risk to the public, based on factors that would quickly change. In 1981 for example, the United States had only 700 reported AIDS cases. The number of cases quadrupled the following year.
Ironically, the American Association for Blood Banks, America’s Blood Centers and American Red Cross support the repeal of the ban some of their members helped to enact, calling the current lifetime deferral for gay and bisexual men “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”
Not better, Just cheaper
The FDA described the ban as “the best way to keep the nation’s blood supply safe.” Physicians and Stanford hospital administrators familiar with the disease, however, attacked the ban as an answer to the public’s panic over a contaminated blood supply, not a scientific solution to ensuring the safety of that supply.
The 1983 ban amounted to little more than a policy announcement, with the federal agency issuing a pamphlet to blood banks that notified donors of the sexual orientation-based restriction. The totality of enforcement was the blood bank staff asking male donors to check a box on their admission form declaring they had not engaged in any sexual act with another male since 1977, when it was believed the virus had emerged in the country. Gay and bisexual men in the military (where blood donations were often compulsory), and other closeted men who might have been called upon by their school or church to give blood, might not have answered the question truthfully.
The directive also notably banned one of the earliest affected groups while ignoring others. Haitian refugees who had migrated in great numbers to the United States in the late 1970’s, were among those with the highest per capita rate of infection. The law also permits promiscuous heterosexuals to donate blood while banning monogamous or celibate gay and bisexual men. Heterosexual IV drug users are similarly not covered by the ban, while banning every gay and bisexual man regardless of his lifestyle,
Ammiano noted the current law makes no exceptions, even in cases of blood shortage, emergencies or rare blood type. The current law forbids donation by gay or bisexual men under any circumstance, even impending death, despite accurate screening tests for HIV that take minutes to complete.