One of my followers recently asked me to cover the stigma associated with gay men and donating blood. I thought this was an interesting issue that I haven’t yet covered, and the timing could not have been more perfect.
For those of you who aren’t aware, under current federal regulations in the U.S., men who have sex with men are not allowed to donate blood until 12 months after their last sexual encounter. So, effectively, unless you are in a severe sexual drought, you are not allowed to donate blood in the U.S. as a sexually-active gay man. This current rule took effect in 2015 and was actually an improvement from the prior rule stating that men who have sex with men could not donate blood ever.
There are obviously two sides to this issue. The purpose of the rule is to safeguard potential recipients of donated blood from receiving HIV+ blood. I don’t think many of us would argue that the statistics show that gay men are HIV+ far more than their straight counterparts. Also, it’s no mystery that unprotected male to male sex is statistically shown to put you at risk of transmitting HIV. So the rule seems to makes sense. But is it fair? Is it discriminatory?
My follower asked how the rule is fair for HIV- gay men who have safe sex and are honest about their sexual encounters. The short answer is, it’s not. Which brings me to the “perfect timing” of this story. I just read an article that Britain will allow gay men and sex workers to donate blood 3 months after their last sexual encounter. Apparently, new studies have shown that the risk does not change much between 3 and 12 months. It’s a bit of an improvement and hopefully the U.S. will follow their lead (perhaps not under Trump…a whole other issue).
To me, the rule is a tough call. Yes, we want to protect the people receiving donated blood. But at the end of the day, the Red Cross isn’t with us 24/7. If someone is going to lie to donate blood, the rule is pointless anyway. Any extensive questioning or disbelief by the people taking your blood would also be discriminatory. So there’s already a major system of trust between gay donors and the blood banks . Why can’t we trust men who can prove they are HIV- and say they have safe sex. Is the risk that they are lying or are HIV+ during the “untestable” period big enough to justify this 12 month policy?
Also, we’re not accounting for women and others who can engage in risky behavior with a potential for HIV transmission. This is what makes the current system discriminatory towards gay men. Donated blood is rigorously tested anyway, so at the end of the day we have a blanket rule impacting gay men but not others for the small percentage of HIV+ blood that may slip through the cracks. I think if science supports a move toward the 3 month policy, that is a step forward.
A final thought. There will always be rules in the world that are for the greater good but unfortunately discriminate against some. For instance, physical ability tests for firefighters can be discriminatory against overweight people but don’t we want our firefighters to be fit for the job? Mandatory retirement rules for judges and pilots can be discriminatory against those fully capable of doing their jobs but “too old.” So is this a similar case of a blanket rule for the good of most, or just straight up discrimination? What do you think?