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Senator Elizabeth Warren

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, has joined with dozens of her Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate to demand that the United States drop its lifetime ban on blood donation by men who have had sex with other men.

In a letter to HHS, Warren – a favorite among progressives for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, although the senator insists she won’t be running – wrote: “Our current blood donation policy prevents many healthy gay and bisexual men from donating blood for their entire lives.” 

Calling the ban “discriminatory” and “unacceptable,” she went on to state that homosexual and bisexual men “should not be categorically excluded because of outdated stereotypes.”

The longstanding ban on blood donations by homosexual men was established in 1983 in response to the epidemic of AIDS sweeping through the gay community.  The ban applies to any man who has had homosexual intercourse since 1977, when the virus, which has its origins in Africa, first began to claim lives in the West.  It is a lifetime ban, meaning that any man who has ever had relations with another man is forbidden to give blood, no matter how long it has been since his last homosexual experience.

In November, an HHS panel recommended ending the lifetime ban, proposing to replace it with a policy that would bar any man from donating blood for a full year after his last homosexual experience, and require rigorous testing of such men for HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases.

But Warren and her Democratic colleagues say that this proposed rule would also be discriminatory.

“A one-year deferral policy, like a lifetime ban, is a categorical exclusion based solely on the sex of an individual’s sexual partner,” Warren wrote.  As for the testing requirement, Warren agreed that a rigorous system of testing is prudent, but objected to singling homosexual behavior out as the justification for the tests.

“[W]e are troubled that such a system has suddenly become a prerequisite to change the blood donation policy for MSM [men who have sex with men],” Warren wrote.  “This system has never before been deemed necessary for any other group of individuals to donate, including [other high-risk donors] currently subject to a one-year deferral policy.”

Warren and her colleagues urged HHS to issue new recommendations lifting the restrictions on homosexual donations by the end of the month. 

Regardless of how HHS responds to Warren’s demands, it is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that must ultimately approve any change to the policies governing blood donation, and that agency has expressed grave reservations about loosening the safety rules.

At a meeting earlier this month to discuss the HHS recommendations, FDA experts rejected arguments by homosexual activists urging them to drop the lifetime ban.

“If I look at the science I would be very wary of a one-year deferral,” said Dr. Susan Leitman, a member of the FDA panel that weighed the proposed changes. “It sounds to me like we're talking about policy and civil rights rather than our primary duty, which is transfusion safety.” 

Fellow panelist and HIV/AIDS activist Corey Dubin also recommended erring on the side of safety. “No matter how you stack it, there is a risk increase,” Dubin said of the proposed change.  Ultimately, the panel tabled discussion of the rule change, saying more research is necessary before they would feel comfortable relaxing the current safety standards.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), homosexual men make up only 2 percent of the population, but 61 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States.  Up to 20 percent of gay and bisexual men are infected with HIV/AIDS, but nearly half of them are unaware of it, says the CDC.

Current blood donation rules don’t just ban men who have sex with men from donating blood.  Other groups subject to lifetime bans include anyone who has ever used intravenous drugs (regardless of last date of usage), people who have received human pituitary-derived growth hormones, and anyone who has spent more than three months in a country where Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (Mad Cow Disease) is prevalent.  

Warren and her colleagues are not arguing in favor of relaxing the rules for these groups.