More than three decades after barring men who have sex with men from becoming blood donors, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced to mixed reactions on Monday that it was lifting the controversial ban.
While some LGBT advocacy organizations commended the new policy, it has also drawn sharp criticism because of its stipulation that gay and bisexual men abstain from sex for 12 months prior to donating blood.
“Ultimately, the 12-month deferral window is supported by the best available scientific evidence, at this point in time, relevant to the U.S. population,” Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. “We will continue to actively conduct research in this area and further revise our policies as new data emerge.”
But advocates including David Stacy, government affairs director for Human Rights Campaign, say the new policy discriminates against donors based on their sexual orientation rather than their risk to the blood supply.
“While it’s a step in the right direction toward an ideal policy that reflects the best scientific research, it still falls far short of a fully acceptable solution, because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men,” he said in a statement. “It simply cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology.”
The ban on male blood donors who have sex with other men dates back to 1983, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, when the government was taking its first steps toward identifying the virus and preventing its transmission. But as testing for HIV and AIDS has become routine during blood donations, many experts, including the American Medical Association, have come out in opposition to the FDA’s ban.
The American Red Cross estimates that more than 41,000 blood donations are needed daily, and someone is in need of blood every two seconds.
The federal agency sparked concerns from human rights groups when FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg unveiled the draft guidelines of the deferral policy nearly a year ago today. Ian Thompson, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union, told TakePart at the time that the new policy would, in effect, continue to function as a lifetime ban because it wasn’t realistic for most gay and bisexual men—including those in committed, monogamous relationships—to be celibate for a year. “Criteria for determining blood donor eligibility should be based on science, not outdated discriminatory stereotypes and assumptions,” he said.
In the months since, groups across the country have organized high-profile campaigns and protests to draw attention to the FDA’s restrictions for male blood donors.
In February, the advocacy organization GLAAD enlisted actor Alan Cumming for a social media effort and video campaign, dubbed the Celibacy Challenge, aimed at spoofing the FDA’s requirement for men who have sex with men and petitioning to overturn it. Twitter garnered headlines earlier this year when it said its employees would not be participating in on-site blood drives until the FDA lifted its ban, including removing the 12-month deferral period for male donors who have sex with men.
In its announcement this week, the FDA said it consulted epidemiologic data to determine that the new requirement is consistent with the delay period in place for other men and women at heightened risk for HIV infection, including those who recently had a blood transfusion or had been exposed to the blood of another person.
The federal agency pointed to countries such as United Kingdom and Australia that have created similar deferral policies for men who have sex with men and have shown no increased risk to the blood supply. There was little data available, however, to test shorter delay periods, the FDA said.