After years of pressure from gay rights group and support from the medical community, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today that it plans to change its longstanding policy banning men who have had sex with other men from donating blood.
The new policy that would replace it, however, will prohibit men who have had sex with another man in the past year from giving blood — a change that many gay rights advocates quickly derided on Tuesday, saying it still effectively bar gay men from donating.
Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), an advocacy group and health clinic formed in New York in response to the AIDS epidemic, said the new policy would reinforce an "outdated stereotype" that HIV is a gay disease and that it could lead to fear, stigma, and discrimination.
"Today, the FDA finally announced that gay and bisexual men may finally be allowed to donate blood — but only if they are celibate for one year, regardless of their risk for HIV," the group said in a statement today, noting that the new policy does not require a year of celibacy for heterosexual blood donors. "Some may believe this is a step forward, but in reality, requiring celibacy for a year is a de facto lifetime ban."
For years groups like GMHC and other advocates have pushed the FDA to change its policy to one that deals with donors on an individual basis to assess risky behaviors, regardless of whether they are gay or straight. The outgoing policy has been in place since 1977 and disqualifies any man who has had sex with another man. An estimated 29,800 men who have sex with other men — as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control — are currently living with the disease, part of the more than 1.2 million total Americans who are HIV positive.
The FDA said it had reached the decision to end the old policy after studying the issue over the "past several years," and taking into account recommendations by the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA said the new policy will "better align the deferral period with that of other men and women at increased risk for HIV infection." In addition to the new stipulations for gay men, individuals who have had heterosexual sex with an HIV positive partner are also prohibited from donating for one year.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said in a statement the new policy continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men.
"This new policy cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology," David Stacy, HRC's Government Affairs Director. "We will continue to work towards an eventual outcome that both minimizes risk to the blood supply and treats gay and bisexual men with the respect they deserve."
Groups like HRC, and any member of the public for that matter, will have the chance to weigh in on the matter. Before writing up the the final version of the policy, the FDA has said it will accept public comment.
Harvard Law School bioethics and the law professor I. Glenn Cohen told VICE News that while he thought the FDA's proposed policy change is a good first step, it does not go far enough. According to Cohen, the reality is that "most gay men will have had sex once in the past year."
"People who experimented in college or something like that, they can donate blood, but any sexually active gay man is categorically rejected, even if he's been tested. And all these blood samples get tested no matter what," Cohen explained.
Cohen said he would like to see the FDA move more toward individualized assessment, as is the policy in some European countries, rather than a blanket rule. He also said he would like to see groups maintain pressure on the FDA regarding the issue.
"It took a long time for [the FDA] to move to this, the question is whether the pressure will continue to be on them," Cohen said, explaining that the move does buy the agency time. "It's reasonable for them to say let's evaluate what happens with this move first then decide. But I hope gay rights activists and the public health community will continue to push them."
Photo via Flickr/Kenny Holston