The FDA's MSM Bans: Another Form of Discrimination
If your loved one was lying in a hospital in need of a blood transfusion, would you care about the sexual orientation of the donor whose blood is going to be given to your loved one? Chances are your biggest concern would be that the blood donor is healthy, not their sexual orientation. Yet, despite the fact that someone in the United States needs blood every two seconds, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discriminates against men who have sex with men (MSM). In 1983, the FDA instituted a policy which bans all men who have had sex with another man at any time since 1977 from donating blood. In addition, the FDA states that men who have had sex with a man in the past five years should be ruled ineligible to donate certain tissues.
Eighteen Senators and 51 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter on September 8th to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Services to express their “continued concern regarding current policies governing blood, organ and tissue donations by men who have sex with men.” This letter was spurred by the story of Alexander “AJ” Betts Jr., a gay teen who committed suicide because of anti-gay bullying. Although his heart was successfully donated, his eyes were rejected because of his sexual orientation - eyes that could have helped restore someone’s vision.
Rather than accessing individual’s risks for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, which is important to consider, the FDA discriminates against all men who have had sex with men without factoring their risk levels. In 2006, AABB, America’s Blood Centers and American Red Cross stated that “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted.” In addition, the American Medical Association voted in 2013 to oppose the FDA’s lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with men and called for a policy focused on individual levels of risk rather than sexual orientation. William Kobler, MD, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees stated that “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science.”
HIV continues to be an important concern to the LGBT community but it is wrong to bar men who have sex with men from donating blood. Under current FDA policy, a heterosexual man who has had multiple female sex partners and engaged in risky sex behaviors could be eligible to donate blood whereas a gay man in a monogamous long-term relationship who has tested negative for HIV would be banned from donating.
The Mishnah states that “he who saves one life it is though he has saved the universe” (Sanhedrin 4:5). As Reform Jews, we recognize the importance of donating blood because each donation is as if one is saving the world. Last summer, Barbara Weinstein, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Director of the Commission on Social Action wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging her to “explain why the ban is medically necessary or develop non discriminatory, targeted policies that value the contributions of all those who wish to selflessly donate in order to save others’ lives.”
According to the Red Cross, more than 41,000 blood donations are needed daily. Just picture how much easier it would be to reach that number of donors if healthy men who have sex with men were able to donate. We hope the FDA will soon change its discriminatory policies to allow as many healthy people as possible to engage in the mitzvah of saving a life.