As dozens of injured people were being sent to Orlando hospitals in the immediate aftermath of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, thousands in Central Florida and throughout the state immediately went to give blood to those fighting for their lives.
However, some survivors of the shooting were prohibited from donating blood to their friends who were shot because of an existing Food and Drug Administration policy that prohibits gay and bisexual men from donating blood unless they’ve been celibate for the past year.
Since Orlando, there’s been a movement in the country to change that policy, with over 130 members of Congress and a number of activists groups now calling on the FDA to lift the ban.
“It’s high time for this outdated and discriminatory policy to end,” said Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis on a conference call Tuesday. “I’m confident that with such broad-based support, among both the American public and members of Congress, the FDA will be moved to look at the science that shows that in fact, there’s nothing inherently different about the blood of gay and bisexual Americans.”
The policy actually has been amended since it was first implemented by the Reagan administration in 1985. On December 21 of last year, the FDA switched its blood donation policy from a ban on any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 to a one-year deferral.
The revised policy also defers blood donations from a woman who has had sex with a gay or bisexual man within the last year.
Tuesday’s call was organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the National Gay Blood Drive. Along with the Equality Federation, the groups have created a petition to change the current policy, and they say over 12,000 people have signed it in recent weeks.
“We can’t say that some people can give blood, other people can’t, based upon their sexual orientation or anything like that. So that experience illuminated for all of us in Orlando the importance from the social standpoint of ending discrimination,” Orlando area Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said on the call.
“That will not only make it possible for far more people to be able to give blood and avoid a situation where that donated blood is infected with HIV or hepatitis viruses, but it will also … help us to identify people who do give blood, and have the infection when it hasn’t resulted in antibodies being generated in their own bodies yet,” Grayson said.
Grayson, who is in a contested battle for the Democratic nomination for Senate in Florida with Rep. Patrick Murphy, says he will soon introduce legislation in Congress to address the situation. He says his bill will create a grant program that will give money to blood banks to do more thorough blood testing based upon antigen testing and RNA testing, rather than simple antibody testing.
Two weeks ago, Murphy joined other members of Congress in calling out FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf to end the ban as well.
“While the sight of thousands of my fellow Floridians lining up for hours to donate blood following this horrifying attack moves us beyond words, it is unconscionable that gay men are prohibited from doing so due to a bigoted federal regulation,”Murphy wrote in a letter. “It is beyond time for the FDA to lift this discriminatory ban. It should not be harder for a gay man to donate blood to his friends in the hospital than it is for a terrorist to buy the guns that put them there.”
The FDA also defers blood donations for 12 months from any person who has had sex with an HIV-positive individual, an intravenous drug user or a prostitute.
In 2013, the American Medical Association urged that the lifetime ban be lifted, calling it “discriminatory and not based on sound science.” Instead, the group suggested a policy that assessed individual risk, rather than sexual orientation alone. However, the American Red Cross supports the current one-year deferral policy because it’s in line with deferrals for the other risk categories noted above.
Advocates also point to a report from the Columbia Medical Review last year that said the one-year requirement is unnecessary.
“Due to the number of potential donors that are unjustly turned away, the existence of adequate screening protocols, and the desire for increased donations within the medical community, the current restrictions are unconscionable,” the report says.
“What we’re hoping to do is to take this tragedy, and not only show a renewed respect for everyone’s rights, and to make these determinations based on genuine risk factors and risky behavior, rather than sexual orientation, but also to use this to actually improve public health,” added Grayson.