2020 Democrats call to end ban on gay men donating blood

Clark Mindock

A growing number of Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election are calling for an end to a long-held standard for blood donations, which critics say enforces latent homophobia and leaves America’s blood supply vulnerable to unscientific limits.

That policy, which bans gay and bisexual men who have had sex with other men within the past year from donating blood, has been criticised as unnecessary in terms of modern scientific testing for blood-borne sexually transmitted diseases like HIV – modern tests can find the virus in the bloodstream within two weeks.

With LGBT+ Pride Month celebrations in full swing, The Independent contacted each of the major 2020 Democratic political campaigns to ask for their position on reforming the blood test ban. In response, seven campaigns responded that their candidates believe the one-year ban enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration is outdated, and needs to be replaced.

“The one-year deferral period for male blood donors who identify as gay and bisexual has nothing to do with science or medicine and everything to do with outdated stigmas against the LGBTQ community,” a spokesperson for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign says.

“Our blood screening policies must be based on 21st century medical evidence, not outdated biases about which populations carry more risk of HIV transmission. These policies serve no one and will only limit access to life-saving blood donations,” they add.

Mr O’Rourke is joined by the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Delaney, and Marianne Williamson to respond to the request, and indicate that they believe the blood testing is discriminatory and in need of repeal.

For many of the candidates, the positions aren’t specifically new, but the overwhelming support for the repeal appears to be unique to the 2020 primary field, and follows after growing pressure and momentum to rework American blood donation policy to better align with more scientific behavioural risks that are not unique to the LGBT+ community – for instance, having multiple sexual partners without using protection.

William McColl, the director of health policy with the advocacy group AIDs United, says that he hasn’t seen presidential candidates discussing the issue much in previous election cycles. He noted that reforms appear to be underway at the FDA – where a new testing standard is reportedly being worked on – but said that the comments from presidential candidates shows that progress is being made in good time.

“I’m pleased to hear that they’re talking about it. I think it shows that we’ve come a really long way in a short period of time,” Mr McColl says. “This discussion wasn’t happening even 10 years ago, for sure.”

The ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men was first established in 1983, at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the United States. At that time, emergency measures were necessary to ensure that the contamination could be contained within reason, according to the LGBT+ advocacy group Glaad.

The initial ban restricted blood donations from those men for their entire lifetime, and impacted not only those men, but also women who had sex with them, as well as transgender people.

Over the next 30 years, however, advances in HIV detection advanced, and the blood donation ban was reduced to just one year in 2015.

But now advocates and presidential candidates are calling for an even further reduction to the ban, as a part of a presidential primary that has seen historic diversity, including a focus on LGBT+ rights as prominent issues for the candidates to consider.

David Stacy, the government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, says that, while helpful, political support for a repeal of the ban is not his primary focus, and he believes the science is on the side of the pro-repeal advocates.

Mr Stacy notes that there has been some pressure on the FDA from members of Congress, and says that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also had a robust LGBT+ campaign platform.

And, most important, Mr Stacy argues that repealing the blood ban and implementing new rules focused on potentially dangerous activity, instead of classes of people, would actually make the US blood supply safer.

“Obviously it is helpful for members of Congress and presidential candidates, and others, to articulate that the current ban, and the way it’s structured, is unfair and stigmatising,” Mr Stacy says. But “we think the science is on our side. We think it’s important that the blood supply be safe, and we can do that without stigmatising.”