The safety of the nation’s blood banks should be the paramount concern for public-health officials, not the feelings of potential donors. But in the case of the 30-year-old ban on gay men donating blood, based on ’80s-vintage fears of HIV/AIDS contamination, science has superseded the rules. A one-year waiting period on donations after any male-to-male sexual encounter should be sufficient protection, and senators, including Elizabeth Warren, are right to push for a rule change. The current law deprives blood banks of donors, and perpetuates an increasingly outmoded perception that HIV/AIDS is only transmitted through the gay community.
An outright ban on blood donations by any man who had engaged in same-sex intercourse may have been justified at the dawn of the epidemic, when there was no sure way to detect the virus and the gay community was at its epicenter. But by 2006, awareness, prevention, and, most importantly, the speed and accuracy of modern screening spurred the Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers to jointly ask the Department of Health and Human Services to soften the rules to a one-year waiting period.
In 2010, then-senator John Kerry joined that call, saying the ban created “medically unjustified double standards.” He noted that a man who has sex with a prostitute or a woman who has sex with a man who is HIV positive face only a 12-month “deferral” period before they can donate blood. The issue heated up again this summer with a call from the American Medical Association to replace the ban with “rational, scientifically based” policies. Last week, in response to a letter from a gay man from Roslindale whose blood donation was rejected after the Boston Marathon bombings, Warren co-wrote a letter with four other members of Congress asking HHS to speed up its review of blood-donation guidelines and end “this outdated policy.”
HHS should do just that.