More gay and bisexual men will now be allowed to donate blood, but LGBTQ rights groups say changes need to go further

  • The Food and Drug Administration is easing a ban that prevented many gay and bisexual men from donating blood.
  • The new rules say that men who have sex with men can qualify to donate blood as long as they have abstained from sex for three months. Previously, they couldn’t donate unless they had abstained from sex for a year.
  • The coronavirus emergency and social distancing rules have created a shortage of blood donations, which the FDA said could be eased by the new guidelines it put out.
  • LGBTQ rights groups say the new screening rules are still problematic and should focus on people’s behaviour instead of sexual or gender identity.
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The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it’s immediately easing its ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, citing an “urgentand immediate need for blood” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency made the change following pressure from LGBTQ rights groups and Democratic senators, who celebrated the move but said it still focused too much on people’s sexual orientation and gender identity, rather than whether they had engaged in risky behaviour.

Under the new rules, men can donate blood as long as they have abstained from sex with another man for three months. Previously, they were banned from blood donations if they’d had sex with another man within the past year. The measures were put in place to protect blood recipients from getting HIV.

“We expect that these modified recommendations will help increase the number of blood donations moving forward, while helping to ensure adequate protections for donor health & maintaining a safe blood supply for patients who need it,” Dr. Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner, said on Twitter.

The FDA didn’t provide estimates about how many more people might donate blood. In a phone call with reporters, Scott Schoettes, the HIV Project Director for Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights group, was sceptical that the change would result in a flood of new donations.

“I don’t think you are going to get a whole lot of people who are willing to abstain from sexual activity” for the three months, he said, adding that he wasn’t aware of specific studies that looked at the impact of reducing the deferral period from a year to three months.

The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA focused on gender-identity law and sexual orientation, estimated in 2014 that 360,600 more men would likely donate blood each year if the ban were to be lifted completely. But the rules have been relaxed slightly since then, and while the group is working on revising its estimates it told Business Insider it doesn’t have them available yet.

More changes to who can give blood

The FDA narrowed restrictions on other groups as part of its guidance change issued Thursday. People are allowed to give blood as long as they haven’t gotten a tattoo or piercing within the last three months. Women who have sex with men who have had sex with men are also allowed to give blood if they have abstained for three months. Both groups used to be banned if the behaviours happened in the last year.

Until Thursday, the agency had imposed a lifetime ban from donating blood among people who were involved in sex work and among people who injected drugs. Those people can now donate blood as long as they have refrained from sex work and drug use for three months.

Usually the FDA would release the list of changes as a suggestion and then collect public comments, but the agency skipped that step, citing the emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing rules put in place to prevent the virus from spreading have caused blood drives to cancel, resulting in a severe shortage.

“I am sorry it took a national health emergency to make it happen, but the action taken today will help save thousands of people’s lives this year and in years ahead,” said Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute.

FDA expects to keep the new donation guidelines in place after the pandemic, saying they would help to boost supply while ensuring safety. It cited other countries with similar regulations, such as Canada and the UK, as evidence for why it thought the changes would be effective.

Advocates want more

LGBTQ rights groups have long fought the FDA’s ban, saying it discriminated against people based on their sexual orientation. While many celebrated the change on Thursday, they said the new rules still had some problems.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, a large LGBTQ advocacy organisation, applauded the change as a “victory” but said it “remains imperfect.”

Proponents of altering the ban further point out that treatment and prevention for HIV have improved, making the virus harder to transmit for those on medication. They wanted to see changes to the forms people fill out when they donate blood.

Determinations about who can donate shouldn’t be made based on orientation but based on risky behaviour, such as asking someone when the last time was that they have had unprotected anal sex, said Dr. W. David Hardy, adjunct professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University. Framing the question that way, he said, was “applicable to anyone who is actually going to be donating blood.”

The questionnaire, ahead of the FDA’s change on Thursday, asked male donors whether they have had sex with another man during the past year. Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, noted that the current questions don’t weigh whether people might be using condoms or taking medication that keeps HIV under control.

Thursdays change wasn’t the first alteration to donation rules. From 1983 to 2015, men who had sex with men were banned from ever giving blood. That changed to a year of abstinence from homosexual sex under the Obama administration.