Florida officials, groups call on FDA to lift ban on blood donations from gay men

The mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub brought attention to a number of issues and debates peripheral to gun control and LGBT discrimination. Among them was the ban on blood donations from gay males.

The Food and Drug Administration does not allow gay men who have engaged in sex with another male in the past year to donate blood for fear that blood infected with HIV or hepatitis will go by undetected. While it used to be a lifetime ban, advocates for the ban to be abolished altogether say even the yearlong wait period is arbitrary and discriminatory, especially when there's high demand for blood and widespread desire to help out.

“At times of tragedy, giving blood is a form of showing solidarity, showing concern for the victims, and even a form of citizenship," U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Orlando who is running for U.S. Senate. "We can’t say that we have first-class citizens and second-class citizens, we can’t say some people can give blood and other people can’t based upon their sexual orientation or anything like that.”

During a call with reporters Tuesday, officials and others said the turning away of some potential donors in the days following the shooting shed light on the need to reexamine the rules.

"Our organization and members, like the nation, were profoundly shaken by the horrors of the Orlando tragedy," said Courtney Hagen, a lobbyist with the group Bold Progressives. "In Orlando, there were many sad stories of survivors who were unable to donate blood to their friends who had been shot simply because they were gay — a discriminatory FDA ban that requires gay men to be celibate for one year to donate. So the thousands of healthy would-be donors were turned away from Orlando blood banks that desperately needed their blood. Their community was under attack, but they were unable to do the simplest of acts to help it heal."

While the policy bars many gay men from donating blood, it seems to ignore the fact that straight women and others are capable of contracting the virus as well, said U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who is, according to a media statement, the first openly gay parent in Congress.

“The FDA simply needs to make screening [based] off of behavior and off of science, not off of orientation," he said. "The gender of one’s partner has nothing to do with whether one is engaged in risky behavior or not. It’s high time for this outdated and discriminatory policy to end, and I’m confident with such broad spread support among both the American public as well as members of Congress the FDA will be moved to look at the science that shows, in fact, that there’s nothing inherently different about the blood of gay or bisexual Americans.”

However, Grayson noted, many blood banks have screening procedures in place that can't detect the virus itself, but only the antibodies produced well after infection, which could result in a false negative.

"Now, we do have to make sure that the blood that's given is actually helpful and not harmful,," Grayson cautioned. "One of the things that happened as a result of this tragedy, we've learned that the system that we use in testing blood is due for an upgrade."

The screening method is used to save money, Grayson said, which is why he plans on introducing a bill in Congress that would create a grant to fund more accurate screening procedures at blood donation facilities.

"That will not only make it possible for far more people to be able to give blood and avoid situations where donated blood is infected with the HIV or hepatitis virus," he said. "But it will also, in addition to that, help us to identify people who do give blood and have the infection when it doesn't result in antibodies being generated by their own bodies yet. So we'll be able to, in some cases, detect the infection at an earlier time than the other ones could."

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