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FDA Considers Ending Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

By L.K. Regan

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to end the decades-old ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. In a development long advocated by AIDS activists, a key committee will meet next month to discuss ways to implement opening up blood donation. For the first time in nearly three decades, gay men may finally be able to participate in this basic act of charity: donating blood.

In 1983, the FDA responded to the AIDS crisis by banning blood donations by any man who had since 1977 had sex, whether oral or anal, with another man. And since 1983, that rule, called the "MSM deferral," has not changed. A single instance of gay sex is disqualifying—and the disqualifying year is still 1977. Had sex with a man one time in 1978, been celibate and tested yearly since? Too bad for you, friend. Your blood is not wanted—despite the fact that donated blood is always tested for HIV (and other pathogens) anyway, and despite the fact that men can have unlimited unprotected sex, including anal, with women without being a priori excluded.

Now all that seems poised to change. The MSM deferral isn't a law, contrary to popular belief; it's a guidance, that is, an instruction to a government agency on how to carry out its mission, laws and regulations. In this case, the FDA appears ready to discuss altering that guidance to something more humane and modern. A notice published in the Federal Register Thursday establishes a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability to be held June 10 and 11 in Rockville, Md. It is open to the public, and public comment will be invited on the second day, should any of our more vocal readers like to attend. At the meeting, the committee will discuss the following issues:

  1. What are the most important factors (e.g. societal, scientific, and economic) to consider in making a policy change; is the currently available scientific information including risk assessments sufficient to support a policy change at this time?
  2. What studies, if any, are needed before implementing a policy change?
  3. What monitoring tools or surveillance activities would need to be in place before implementing a policy change?
  4. What additional safety measures, if any, are needed to assure blood safety under a revised deferral policy?
In other words, the committee will consider the status of modern screening techniques, both scientific and verbal—and activists and sensible people everywhere are hoping that they will at the very least revisit and seriously revise the ridiculous 1977 rule.