Imagine if you had the power to help save over a million lives a year, but the government was like, “nah, better not. Too gay.”
That’s what’s been going on for over thirty years, ever since the FDA banned blood and organ donations from men who have sex with men. Some other countries have lifted or reduced their bans with no negative results ― so, what’s going on in the US?
Back in the ‘80s, when the ban was created, it was a best-guess effort to keep blood donations safe since there hadn’t been much research yet. But we’ve learned a lot since then, so does the science support keeping the ban in place?
Nope. Now we know that HIV isn’t limited to gay men. And even if it was, now all donated blood is tested for HIV, with highly sensitive tests that can detect the virus within about 9 days of infection. The FDA’s own research shows that even when someone with HIV does donate blood, which sometimes happens, the chances of that blood making it to another person is 1 in 1.47 million.
So the blood supply is already very very safe. But to be fair, HIV does disproportionately affect gay men, so doesn’t banning them make the blood even MORE safe?
Not really. The FDA’s research also shows that among all men who have sex with men, the rate of HIV is about 11%. But among those men who want to donate blood, the rate of HIV is .25%. And that makes sense, right? If you know you’re positive, you’re less likely to donate. And if you’ve been tested as negative, you’re more likely to want to donate.
So by banning all gay men from donating, the FDA is actually cutting off a group that has an extremely low rate of HIV infection.
According to the Williams Institute, lifting the ban would increase the blood supply by as much at 615,000 pints ― that’s about three backyard swimming pools worth of blood, which is not how it would be used, it would be used to help save over a million lives.
We got a little reminder of how harmful this ban is after the shooting at a gay club in Orlando. At the time, queer people lined up around the block to donate blood ― and they got turned away, without regard to their actual status or individual risk, because of a blanket ban created before anyone even knew what HIV was.
Now the FDA knows the ban is bad science. In 2015, they changed the rules ― until then, you couldn’t donate blood if you’re a man who’d had sex with a man in the last 37 years. Now, you’re only banned if you’ve had sex in the last one year. It’s an improvement, and it’s closer to how the UK, Mexico, and Canada handle things. But it still cuts off a huge number of people, since most of us will have sex within the span of a year.
And wait ― why one year, if the blood test can detect HIV just nine days after exposure? That question can be answered with this highly scientific shrug emoji, because one year is a basically arbitrary amount of time. There’s no reason to think one year makes any sense, and it still severely limits donations.
Now, there are signs that the FDA is trying to replace the blanket ban on gays with an individual assessment of each donor’s risk. But because this is the federal government, that would going to take several years of studies to make sure they’re doing it safely. And now who’s going to be running the federal government over the next few years? Oh, right.
To be fair, Donald’s not going to be personally overseeing the FDA. So who is? This guy, Tom Price, as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. We don’t know what Tom’s position is on discriminating against gay men’s blood. But we do know that wants to allow insurance companies to deny coverage to gay patients, which is a way those companies could dodge paying for HIV treatment. And when one of Tom’s supporters asked him what he’d do to oppose LGBT equality, he said that he wants to study the “consequences” that gay people’s “medical health” impose on “state balance sheets.”
That sounds like a bunch of politician-gibberish, but what he’s saying is that the state shouldn’t have to accommodate gay people’s medical needs because their behavior is, as he says, “outside the norm.”
That’s not encouraging. It’s also not new ― Republicans have been equating gay men, HIV, and “outside the norm” for decades. And they could get away with that in 1983, because there was virtually no good science around HIV, and gay people were an easy target for conservative politicians.
But like many things from the 80s, times have changed. And they can’t use ignorance as an excuse anymore. Now we know what HIV is, we know how to treat it, and we know how to prevent it. And we know that the real threat to public health, comes from public officials who care more about scoring political points than saving a million lives.