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Why the MSM Blood Ban is Destructive to All of Us
Since 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has enforced a ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), effectively barring gay and bisexual men and trans women, who are also placed in the FDA’s MSM category, from participating in blood drives. This MSM blood ban was enacted at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, and many within the LGBT community and the wider medical community believe the lifetime ban is outdated, regressive, and discriminatory.
There are no exclusions for men who practice safe sex or are in monogamous relationships, and the practice of indefinite deferral for MSM who wish to donate blood is widespread. Many countries not only refuse blood donations from gay and bisexual men and trans women, but often also bar female sexual partners of MSM from donating for a year or more after a sexual encounter.
The issue isn’t just discriminatory, however: it’s also a public health issue, since hospitals, clinics, and emergency personnel rely on a steady supply of donated blood to treat patients and perform transfusions. Approximately 41,000 donations are needed each day, and the ban means these members of the LGBT community are prohibited from helping. The ramifications of the ban go way beyond the LGBT community, impacting patients who rely on blood donations to stay alive.
The FDA has had lifetime #BloodBan on all gay and bisexual men for nearly 33 years. Click To Tweet
The Problems of the MSM Blood Ban
The MSM blood ban is based on worries about communicable disease: the FDA argues that “MSM are, as a group, at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B, and certain other infections that can be spread by transfusion.” Opponents of the ban, however, have often pointed out that donated blood is screened for these exact communicable diseases after it’s collected, which suggests that the ban may no longer be medically necessary.
- Stereotypes – Many members of the LGBT community believe the MSM blood ban is based on outdated stereotypes regarding gay and bisexual men, particularly the idea that gay men tend to be more promiscuous.
- Outdated – The majority of deferrals are based on regulations enacted in 1983, when the AIDS crisis reached epidemic levels and the public was not as well-informed on HIV prevention, treatment, and causes.
- Stability – Enforcing a lifetime MSM blood ban completely ignores the current realities of the LGBT community, including the increased numbers of MSM who are in long-term, stable relationships where the risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis is severely reduced.
According to the World Health Organization, transfusions rarely result in the transmission of communicable diseases: the organization stated that the prevalence of HIV transmission is only 0.002 percent in high-income countries like the United States, and screening processes are constantly improving, so much so that lifting the ban may have almost no negative consequences.
41,000 daily blood donations needed. Much of LGBT community is banned from helping. Click To Tweet
An MSM Blood Ban Solution in Sight?
In November 2015, France lifted its ban on MSM donations, which had also been in place since 1983. The country’s minister of social affairs stated that “donating blood is an act of generosity, citizenship, which cannot be conditioned to sexual orientation.” Canadian Blood Services will begin transitioning from a five-year deferral to a one-year deferral beginning in 2016. In the United States, opposition to lifetime deferrals is growing:
- Boycott – Many companies, including Twitter, are no longer participating in blood drives until the ban is lifted, since they believe the restrictions are discriminatory in nature and result in employees being ostracized from company-wide events.
- Behavior – Many have proposed that the screening should be based on behavior, rather than a blanket ban on donations from MSM. Screening potential donors who regularly engage in high-risk sexual behavior would allow monogamous MSM to donate.
- Celibacy – In the United States, the FDA issued new guidance in December 2015 allowing gay and bisexual men to donate after a year of celibacy. Most members of the LGBT community, as well as organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, have stated that while the new policy is a step in the right direction, it still isn’t a viable or realistic solution.
It won’t be easy, but as testing procedures continue to improve, the FDA has several options for opening donations to MSM, and that could mean many more gay and bisexual men and trans women could soon be eligible to donate blood, which would be a major gain for public health.
#BloodDonation is an act of generosity and should not be limited by sexual orientation. Click To Tweet
The MSM Blood Ban Beyond the LGBT Community
Outside of the LGBT community where the ban on blood donation has the largest impact, the current deferral status for MSM is widely unknown. While increasing public awareness may bring backlash from those who would be opposed to receiving blood from a gay or bisexual man, it would also allow for a wider conversation about how the ban affects not only the LGBT community, but also the people who need blood the most.
It’s time to bring this conversation into the spotlight and figure out a way to make blood donation more accessible to members of the LGBT community. Banning MSM from donating blood isn’t helping anyone, and the harm it’s causing is not just an LGBT issue.