Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Lie to Donate Blood

“Testing the blood” doesn’t catch everything, say experts.

On a call with reporters Thursday, April 2, advocates with the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal hailed the Food and Drug Administration’s first steps toward walking back its decades old “gay blood ban.” They also acknowledged that substantial work is still needed before the discriminatory policy is off the books.

“Continuing to enforce the de facto prohibition on blood donation by sexually active gay and bisexual men does not reflect the best science that is available,” said Alphonso David, president of the HRC.

David’s remarks come after the FDA partially rolled back the ban in an effort to increase blood donations as the nation grapples with a massive blood shortage during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the “ban,” which now allows donations from men who have not had sex with men in the past three months (as opposed to 12), is not entirely unscientific, said advocates.

Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal HIV project director, said that while Lambda believes the current rules are out of step with science, his organization is absolutely against gay and bisexual men lying in order to donate blood.

“There is a reason that there are deferral periods,” Schoettes told reporters Thursday. “I think there’s a perception out there that’s done on the blood, which is very advanced testing, people believe that it catches all new cases of HIV or new cases of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or other blood-borne infections.”

That’s simply not the case, according to experts. While many Americans believe that lab technicians can just “test the blood,” donors still play a big part in keeping pathogens out of the blood supply. Those regulations have historically included deferrals for people who have gotten tattoos or piercings within the last 12 months (eased on Thursday to three months), people who have traveled to countries with malaria over the last year (also amended to three months this week), as well as other risk factors.

Rather than screening out men who have sex with men, Lambda Legal, HRC, and other LGBTQ groups are asking the FDA to survey prospective donors based on specific risk factors, instead of identity-based bans. Among those factors could be how recently a donor has had anal sex with a man.

“While a deferral may be necessary to detect newly-acquired blood-borne pathogens like HIV, the deferral period could be comfortably shortened to as little as 45-60 days,” said Schoettes in a media statement.

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On Thursday the FDA committed to further studying the issue. Senator Tammy Baldwin said that commitment is also a step in the right direction, even if the current policy falls short.

“It is also progress to know that this policy change is expected to last beyond the pandemic,” she added.

But until the ban is fully repealed, Schoettes advised, LGBTQ people should continue to abide by the regulations set out by the FDA.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate