Last week, the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability heard seven presentations on whether men who have sex with men (MSM) should be allowed to donate blood after abstaining from sexual intercourse for a year, rather than the current lifetime ban. The board, which said in 2010 the lifetime ban is “suboptimal” but declined to change policy, is under a great deal of political pressure to change the policy. 

The hearing took place less than a week after the Center for Disease Control's newest statistics showed, in its 2011 survey of 20 major U.S. cities, MSM make up over 50% of the country's population with HIV/AIDS, and account for over 60% of the nation's new HIV/AIDS cases. 

Should the ban be lifted, as one gay activist told me it should in the article I wrote for Should the ban be changed to a one-year deferral, as the nation's Big Three blood donor organizations prefer? Or should it stay the same?


In his testimony to the HHS Advisory Committee, Family Research Council Senior Fellow for Policy Studies Peter Sprigg said the ban should not be changed. He said that while current testing does a tremendous job of catching HIV/AIDS, CDC data shows over 90% of all HIV/AIDS cases among males 13 to 24 “were as a result of 'male-to-male sexual contact.” Furthermore, the CDC pointed out in the report that came out Thanksgiving weekend that “the estimated number of new HIV infections rose 12% among MSM overall.” 

However, the most devastating part of Sprigg's testimony are the four questions he said should be addressed by the Committee: 

The current policy should only be changed if all of the following conditions are met: 

  1. It can be shown that a change is needed to ensure an adequate blood supply.
  2. It can be shown that the change would result in a significant increase in the blood supply. 
  3. It can be proven that a change would result in no added risk to the blood supply. 
  4. The change would add no additional costs for added or special screening procedures. 

Sprigg's four questions are absolutely critical, and are similar questions I asked of Doctor Steve Kleinman – senior medical adviser to the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) – about shortages for's article on the issue. I wanted to know whether more donations by gay men would fill an existing gap in donations. 

He told me that “during seasonal shortages, blood will be directed to those patients who are in emergency need but patients undergoing elective surgery may need to have their procedures postponed.” However, he also e-mailed that a change to policy “would mean the number of gay men giving blood would not rise significantly, though some college students protesting the current policy may give blood more often.” This is because most gay men who engage in sexual relations do not abstain from sex for a year. 

Instead, Kleinman emphasized that the goal is to “harmonize this deferral with that for other HIV behavioral risk factors.” He pointed to how current testing catches at least 999,999 of every 1 million HIV/AIDS-infected blood donation. 

Based on what Kleinman told me, it's clear that at least three of Sprigg's conditions would not be met by a change in current policy. While the odds of HIV/AIDS-infected blood getting through testing is very small – again, at most 1 in a million are expected to get through testing – there is no need for new blood to fill existing gaps. Furthermore, there would be an increased risk of HIV/AIDS-infected blood getting through to donor recipients, even though the number of blood donations would not change significantly. 

Sprigg closed his prepared statement with this excellent summation of how the political reasons for changing the policy – which are the focus of those activists who want the ban lifted – fail the test of “social justice” when it comes to blood donations: 

Finally, let me point out that there is no “right” to donate blood. No reasonable concept of social justice requires expanding the pool of potential blood donors. On the contrary, social justice requires that only the needs of potential blood recipients be considered at all; and it requires that national policy ensure the maximum level of safety that is consistent with maintaining an adequate blood supply. 

There is one other point to consider when it comes to this ban: it is different in two significant ways than at least one other lifetime bans the FDA requires. As was described in the earlier article (emphasis added):

…[P]eople born in England during certain years are not allowed to give because medical science does not allow for testing of the human version of Mad Cow Disease. MSM differs from this case slightly, because testing does catch HIV/AIDS. Another difference is being born in England is not chosen, whereas engaging in sexual relations is a distinct choice in all cases except for rape.

In the end, the answer to whether the ban on MSM should be changed or lifted is simple: No. While it is a discriminatory policy, as Sprigg pointed out, the focus of public policy should be recipients, not donors. Furthermore, this discrimination has not led to a harmful shortage of blood donations, and would not significantly increase the number of blood donations. Instead, the policy looks at the nation's most high-risk group of citizens, gay men consensually engaging in sex with other men, and has reacted appropriately. 

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