WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's administration on Tuesday recommended ending the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.
The new recommendations are contained in draft guidance issued by the Food and Drug Administration. The public will have 30 days to comment on the policy, and the FDA will later issue final rules.
Men who have had sex with other men, even just once, have been banned from giving blood since 1985, near the start of the AIDS epidemic. As The New York Times has noted, "Restrictions on donors were written when H.I.V. testing was slower and less refined. Today, some tests can detect the virus in blood as little as nine days after infection."
For years, gay rights advocates have blasted the rule as discriminatory and pushed for a change.
The FDA's newly proposed policy -- which has been expected since December -- says men will have to wait at least one year after having sex with another man before giving blood. From the draft guidelines:
Although not making a change would maintain the current level of safety of the blood supply...there is evidence that the [lifetime] deferral policy is becoming less effective over time. In addition, the policy is perceived by some as discriminatory. [...]
Change to a one-year deferral is also support by other evidence, including the experience in countries that have already changed their policies to a one-year deferral (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Japan, Sweden and United Kingdom).
And in a win for the transgender community, the FDA also says that when donors fill out questionnaires about their history, gender identity should be "self-identified and self-reported." Right now, donor policy is based on sex at birth. The draft guidance recommends a change so that donors are able to self-identify at the donation site.
Robert M. Wah, president of the American Medical Association, commended the FDA for "taking a step in the right direction to end the lifetime ban that prohibits men who have had sex with men (MSM) from ever donating blood."
“The AMA fully supports and has been a strong advocate for eliminating these current public policies as we believe that the latest scientific evidence should dictate blood and tissue donation deferral periods to ensure the safety of the national blood supply," Wah said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The AMA’s policy supports using scientifically-based deferral periods that are consistently and fairly applied to donors based on their risk level."
Even if the policy changes, many gay men would not be able to donate blood. For example, someone in a sexually active monogamous gay couple would still be barred from donating.
A group of senators, led by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), said in December that such a policy change would be "a step forward" but one that would still prevent "many low-risk individuals from donating blood."
The FDA said Tuesday it has taken steps to implement a national blood surveillance system that will help it monitor the safety of the blood supply and determine future actions on blood policy. In other words, it will be watching to see if the rules on donations can be changed down the line.
The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which studies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, has calculated the number of men who would likely donate and the pints of blood that would become available under three scenarios: a complete end to the ban, a 12-month deferral, and a five-year deferral.