Ever since I was rejected from donating blood by the American Red Cross because I classify myself as a gay man who has had sex with a man since 1977 (I was born in 1984), I have been a fierce advocate of changing the policy ban in the United States that is arbitrary, based on disproved science, and rooted in a fear from decades past.
Since I last wrote about this ban (Medium, November 2013) not much has changed in Washington. However, in three months, the voices of change and anger have grown louder. And the voices of common sense have refused to be drowned out by strokes of fear.
Blake Lynch, the founder of Banned4Life has spent the last 18 months fighting this policy at the grassroots level. Lynch has been fighting a negative stigma about his homosexuality his whole life. In fact, he once had to go to the now closed Exodus International to cure him of his same-sex desires.
Lynch, now a grown up and healthy gay man, wanted to donate blood to support a friend with sickle cell anemia. Instead of making his planned donation, Lynch was turned down for answering yes to this question: From 1977 to the present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once? In that situation, Lynch told the truth and has now been added to the lifetime banned list.
It is a list that is costing valuable and life-saving assets from being used to treat cancer patients, premature babies, and emergency room visitors. This ban, coupled with what Dr. Art Caplan says is a growing concern in the medical community of too frequent donation being harmful to the life of the donor, exacerbates the diminished pool of donors because of this ban. An NBC News Report discusses a growing concern that giving often can lead to iron deficiency which can eventually lead to anemia.
The Department of Health and Human Services, led by former Governor Kathleen Sebelius, has been a bit focused on the Affordable Care Act, but the Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability is the arm that oversees the blood supply in the United States.
Twice, Banned4Life volunteers have spoken at open forums hosted by the Blood Products Advisory Committee a group under the FDA umbrella. Robert Tollefson (in June 2013) and Zach Spoehr-Labutta (in December 2013) spoke about the MSM ban to the group. Their public comments drew some media attention and a "nice applause" from the audience, but both times the meetings ended with a consensus that no action should be taken by HHS to address the issue.
The challenge and possibly greater shame is that the rest of the world has come to believe in 21st Century science. Australia, Finland, Great Britain, and Japan only defer MSMs for a year and South Africa defers for six months. Even Russia allows donation by riskier groups like "homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes" with no time limit. They trust their rigorous testing procedures.
In the United States, this single question and targeted ban insinuates that only gay men who have sex make risky choices; and that is far from the truth. Formed in 1991 to find a cure, The Hepatitis B Foundation lists many high risk groups on their website which include: "individuals with multiple sex partners, illicit drug users, and men who have sex with men."
According to a Washington Times article, there are more and more voices advocating for a change. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat says, "We feel that the AMA's recent vote in opposition to the current policy provides greater impetus for HHS to move swiftly." Furthermore, gay-rights advocates are calling for a policy that factors in low-risk sexual practices like condom use and monogamy.
As a senator, John Kerry agreed that the current policy is akin to "medically unjustified double standards."
Since its founding, the Banned4Life group has collected over 35,000 signatures in support of a policy change and have held over a dozen blood drives to further bring the focus on this ban. Lynch summarizes the need for change in a single sentence, "This policy does not just affect gay men, this policy affects anyone who needs blood."
Lynch wants the policy to change from a focus on one's sexual orientation to one that focuses on sexual behaviors. "The current policy relies solely on the assumption that all gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while omitting any questions that would identify risky sexual behavior in heterosexual donors," says Lynch.
Until that day, Banned4Life and it's supporters, the American Red Cross, along with many in Congress, are going to keep the pressure on HHS to stop living in the past and start saving lives.