Some gay and bisexual men who want to donate blood will be able to once the Food and Drug Administration's new recommendations take effect. The revised policy will overturn the current lifelong ban on blood from men who have sex with other men and permit donations from men who have abstained from sexual contact with another man for at least 12 months.
Detractors argue that even this 12-month period is not medically sensible and potentially harmful to the large number of people who need blood donations. But the anticipated change in policy also highlights inequities in other areas of medical donation -- namely, tissue and organ donation.
Per FDA guidelines, men who have had sex with other men in the last five years are among those currently ineligible to donate tissue and cells.
Now that blood donation by gay and bisexual men will be permissible after 12 months of abstinence, the five-year deferral period for cell and tissue donation doesn't make much sense, said Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
"The question has to be posed to the FDA now: If there is only a need for a one-year deferral for a blood donation, why does there need to be a deferral period significantly greater than that for these other areas?" Thompson told The Huffington Post. "Given their announcement [Tuesday], they certainly should review those other policies as well, with an eye on making them consistent with what we know today from a scientific standpoint, instead of relying on these outdated stereotypes and assumptions about gay men."
An FDA spokeswoman told HuffPost that the agency couldn't speculate on whether guidance around tissue donation would change in the future.
Organ donation is overseen by a different federal agency: the Health Resources and Services Administration in the Department of Health and Human Services. Gay and bisexual men are not excluded from donating, nor are they required to abstain from sex for a certain amount of time before donating. Organ samples from all donors are rigorously tested beforehand to screen for diseases like HIV and hepatitis. However, as TakePart notes, a patient receiving a organ will be notified if it comes from a man who has had sex with another man in the past 12 months.
This leaves individual risk assessment up to the receiving patient and his or her doctors or to the groups with the organ donation network -- which has led to a tragic waste of potential organ donations. For instance, last year the eyes of a gay teen who had asked to be a donor were rejected, even though his heart, liver, lungs and kidneys were transplanted. And this year the Center for Organ Recovery and Education rejected the organs of a gay man who had been in a committed relationship for eight years before his death, citing FDA rules against tissue donation from men who have sex with men -- even though the FDA doesn't oversee organ donation. In the latter case, according to Think Progress, the organization later claimed that it had rejected the man's organs because of the way he died -- cardiac arrest -- although his sister said she was told it was due to his sexuality.
It's just these sorts of stories that have led Thompson and other gay rights advocates to push for screening methods based on individual risk, instead of a blanket ban or deferral based on sexuality.
"It makes no sense to exclude from the donor pool healthy, gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men who are in committed, monogamous relationships where neither partner is living with HIV," said Thompson. "But I think the progress we're seeing, however flawed it is on the blood donation end, is probably a good indication we may see progress on these other issues as well," he added.
There is a dire need for organ donors in the U.S. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, an average of 21 people die every day waiting for an organ, while one organ donor can save as many as eight lives.