Examining the Ban on Gay Blood Donations After the Orlando Shooting

In the early morning of Sunday, June 12, Omar Mateen went on a terrifying rampage that killed 49 people and injured 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In the aftermath of the tragedy, local residents lined up by hundreds to donate blood. But many gay and bisexual men who waited in long lines to help their fallen brothers and sisters were denied the ability to donate. This refusal sparked outrage among the LGBT community and called attention to a FDA decision that some find discriminatory.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, thousands of people contracted HIV through blood transfusions, and over 50 percent of hemophiliacs were infected. So in 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stopped allowing blood banks to accept donations from men who had sex with another man after 1977. This ban was put in place because gay men have a significantly higher HIV-infection rate than the rest of the population.

Men who have sex with men represent only about four percent of the U.S. male population. But according to AIDS.gov, in 2010, they accounted for 78 percent of new HIV infections among males, and 63 percent of all new infections. Why is this? According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, anal intercourse poses 18 times the HIV risk than male-to-female vaginal penetration.


Last year, after 32 years of banning almost all gay men from donating blood, the FDA revised its recommendations saying that gay men may donate if they hadn’t participated in male-on-male intercourse within the previous year. This change came because tests can now determine whether blood is tainted with HIV 25 days post-infection. Although the FDA ruling was a step in the right direction, some still find it discriminatory because it excludes monogamous gay men from donating while allowing heterosexuals who’ve had multiple partners.

Dr. Susan Buchbinder, director of the HIV research program for San Francisco General Hospital, says the the FDA policy is overly conservative. “I don’t think it’s appropriate given current testing technology,” she says. “I can’t imagine that additional pain that people feel when they go in trying to help care for the survivors of this massacre and are unable to donate blood because of a regulation that I don’t believe is supported by the science.”

The Orlando massacre has prompted leaders in the LGBT community to call for an overturn of the blood ban. On Tuesday, June 14, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives said they were looking to introduce legislation to overturn the FDA’s policy. “The 12-month deferral policy, which suggests that the sexual relationships of [gay] men and transgender women inherently pose a risk of HIV transmission, furthers a stigma that we have persistently fought to eliminate,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf. But this call by Democrats may fall on deaf ears. They’ll face tough opposition from the Republicans and, two days before their statement, the FDA stood by its decision saying, “scientifically robust data are not available to show that this [allowing sexually active gay men to donate] would not lead to decreased safety of the blood supply.”

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