Democrats aim to remove ban on blood donations by gay men

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Experts say even the Trump administration's limited ban on donations is unnecessary.

Two House Democrats have introduced legislation that would require the Food and Drug Administration to change guidance on blood donations intended to lower the risk of HIV transmission, saying the current approach discriminates against LGBTQ people — bisexual and gay men in particular.

The legislation would change the FDA guidance to focus on an "individual risk-based analysis" and testing accuracy in order to prevent HIV transmission, rather than barring many LGBTQ people from giving blood.

The bill also mandates that the FDA revise its donor questionnaire to focus on an individual's sexual behaviors rather than their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Reps. Val Demings (D-FL) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced the Science in Blood Donation Act of 2020 on Friday. Demings said in a press release that changes to the current restrictions would save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Every day, across the United States, donated blood marks the difference between life and death. There is no substitute. Yet our country turns away thousands of healthy and willing blood donors based solely on their gender identity and sexual orientation," Demings said.

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the FDA began telling men who'd had sex with other men after 1977 that they were ineligible to donate blood. During the Obama administration, the FDA changed the ban to allow gay and bi men to donate if they had been celibate for one year. On April 2, the Trump administration reduced that period of celibacy to three months.

Officials in the Trump administration and Republican Party have trumpeted that move as proof that Donald Trump has improved the lives of LGBTQ people during his presidency, despite the fact that health experts say there is no purpose to keeping restrictions on blood donations for LGBTQ people at all.

A few weeks after the most recent change, Democratic attorneys general from 20 states sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under which the FDA operates, which asked that restrictions be based on individual behavior and not whether someone is a member of the LGBTQ community.

In May, Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and other Democratic lawmakers said the guidance barring certain LGBTQ individuals from donating blood was discriminatory and created unnecessary barriers during a pandemic.

"There's really no health justification for this discriminatory policy," Polis said at the time.

The Human Rights Campaign has stated that it opposes the current guidance because it rejects people based on membership in a group rather than individual actions. The group noted that, under the guidance, a man who'd had protected oral sex once in three months would be barred from donating blood but a woman who'd had unprotected sex with multiple partners over three months, without knowledge of those partners' personal histories, would be allowed to donate.

Despite calls to end the outdated donation guidance altogether, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has continued to celebrate the narrower window of celibacy in order to dodge questions about the Trump administration's broader anti-LGBTQ record.

When questioned on Aug. 31 about the Justice Department's decision to fight same-sex couples who want the State Department to recognize their children's citizenship, for instance, McEnany boasted of the administration's "achievements" on LGBTQ rights and included FDA's decision to ease restrictions.

She also mentioned the FDA guidance in July to deflect from a question about whether the administration would reconsider the transgender military ban.

The Republican National Committee also included the change in a brief it released in June that claimed Trump is an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

The administration meanwhile has taken 175 anti-LGBTQ actions since Trump assumed office, according to GLAAD.

On Wednesday, Whitman-Walker Institute, which focuses on research, policy and advocacy, and education about the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV, released a statement saying that while the three-month ban was an improvement over a one-year ban, "it fails to reflect actual risks and unnecessarily continues to perpetuate stigma based on sexual orientation."

Daniel Bruner, senior director of policy at Whitman-Walker Institute, said the organization hopes to work with the FDA "to develop a screening protocol that would preserve the safety of the blood supply while eliminating unnecessary restrictions that have the effect of stigmatizing all men who have sex with other men, and many transgender people, as public safety risks."

"Since all donated blood is tested for HIV and other blood-borne pathogens, the only relevant safety consideration is whether the donor has engaged in recent activities posing a significant risk of HIV transmission — so recent that current HIV tests might fail to detect the virus," he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, has also included on his campaign website a pledge to work with the FDA to ensure that restrictions on blood donations are "based on science, not fiction or stigma."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.