Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is That Blood Gay?

A recent project I've been working on for my internship has been to coordinate a blood drive between groups in different cities. There is always a shortage of blood and the Red Cross is very supportive of groups willing to host a blood drive or make group donations, so it seemed like a good way to get lots of people involved for a minimal amount of effort on their part. When I sent the information out to the groups however, there was an unexpected problem. A few of the groups weren't comfortable with the idea of participating in a blood drive because donation centers do not accept blood from sexually active homosexual men. They would effectively be excluding their gay members from the event.

Now, I can totally understand where they are coming from here. I do not like supporting discriminatory institutions. I even gave up eating at my favorite fast food restaurant because they donated upwards of a million dollars to anti-gay groups. And believe me, that was not an easy decision to make. I still get Chick-Fil-A cravings sometimes. But I think they're missing the point.

For one, it isn't actually the Red Cross and other blood donation centers that are being discriminatory in this case. They are actually acting in accordance with FDA regulations, which were put in place during the 1980's. At the time, there was no effective screening process for HIV or hepatitis...diseases which were significantly more prevalent in the gay population. The actual wording of the ban targets 'any man who has had sex with another man since 1977' specifically because of the high incidence of HIV during that time period. Since incidence rates were so high and there was no screening process in place, the entire group was labeled as 'high risk' and banned from giving blood. Maybe a bit reactionary, but not totally unreasonable given how terrified people were of AIDS when it first hit the infectious disease scene in America.

The reason this policy is often called discriminatory is because that is simply no longer the case. Tests for HIV were developed back in 1985, and have only gotten faster and more effective. The current risk of transfusion-related exposure to HIV is estimated at less than 1 in 2.5 million. This is why maintaining this policy often strikes people as homophobic, and I happen to agree. Not only does the ban seem entirely impractical given how desperately blood is needed, it is unusually harsh. Other groups that engage in 'high risk' behaviors (traveling to certain regions, history of drug use, etc.) are generally banned from blood donation for one year, whereas buttsex gets you banned for life. Even if it was just that one time in college. Honestly I think that the FDA just doesn't want to deal with the inevitable media circus of misinformation that will circulate if it raises this issue, even if it would mean more blood donations and more lives saved. I almost don't blame them. Maybe in another year or two.

So wait, if I agree that the policy is discriminatory then why do I disagree with groups boycotting blood donations to show support for their gay members? Isn't that exactly what I did when I stopped eating at Chick-Fil-A?

The thing is, when I stopped giving Chick-Fil-A my money I stopped facilitating their support of anti-gay groups. That was important to me. Now, if I refused to donate blood or support blood donation centers I would stop facilitating...the delivery of blood to people who need it to live? No. This does not help anyone. It does not help your gay friends be treated equally. It does not help the people who are depending on blood donations.

If you think it is ridiculous that a significant portion of the population is banned from donating blood when the nation is constantly in a state or critical need? Sign petitions. Write letters to the FDA or your local representatives. Organize a protest. Hand out flyers at blood donation centers. But doing nothing is not a form of dissent in this situation. It doesn't raise awareness or correct the problem. I'm certain that most patients don't even think about where the blood that saved their lives came from, and those patients should not suffer to prove a point.

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